White camas

Zigadenus elegans

Common Name: White camas

  • A tall blue-green plant, 8-24 inches.
  • Plant is poisonous and can be deadly toxic.
  • Leaves have a waxy coating.
  • Resembles an onion, but with an earthy odor.

Native or Invasive: Native perennial

Characteristics: White camas has attractive flowers and is heavily visited by insects. Stems are erect, standing 8-24 inches. The leaves are covered in bluish-white, waxy coating and are crowded at the base of the plan. Often the leaves have a purple tip. The underground part of the plant looks like an onion bulb.

The flowers have six white to greenish-yellow petals with a purple or brownish splotch toward the base and an earthy, somewhat unpleasant odor.

It is found all over the country, and stretches into Canada and Mexico. However, it is not found in the extreme northern parts of the Great Lakes region and is absent from the middle areas.

Habitat: Dunes and rocky areas.

Fun Fact: White camas very closely resembles some narrow-leaved onions, so before eating any wild onions, the identification should be verified especially if the plant is taken from sand dunes, sandy northern trails or a fen. One mark is that it smells earthy, not like an onion.

Ethnobotanical Uses: The whole plant is deadly poisonous to people and animals and contains the compound zygacine. It should never be ingested. It has been used externally as part of a mixture of plants thrown on rocks in sweat lodges and to rub on sore muscles.

Adapted from Guide to Great Lakes Coastal Plants, by Ellen Elliott Weatherbee, University of Michigan Press.