Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Native Species Profile - White Camas

One of my favorite habitats is the Great Lakes coastal dune complex.  Dunes are often considered among the most threatened habitat types here in the Great Lakes - they can only exist in certain places along the lakes and are often under threat of development.  Because the dunes are threatened, many of the plants that live there are also threatened.  Some of these plants are endemic to the Great Lakes dunes (meaning that they are found nowhere else in the world) like Pitcher's Thistle.  If their habitat is not preserved, they will go extinct. 

Fortunately, other plants that are found in the dune complex can also be found elsewhere so their future is probably more secure. 

One such plant is the White Camas (Zigadenus glaucus).

White Camas (Zigadenus elegans)

Also known as Mountain Death Camas, or simply Death Camas, White Camas is found across North America.  According to the USDA PLANTS database, it has been found in 30 states and 9 Canadian provinces/territories.  It is absent from California, the Southeastern states, most of New England, and the Maritime provinces.  Most sources list the plant as growing in moist, sandy soil under shaded or partially shaded conditions in habitats such as shorelines, bogs, mountains, and prairies.  In Michigan, the plant is mainly found among dunes along the upper shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, and also across the southern third of the Lower Peninsula in remnant prairies and oak savannahs. 

White Camas in a dune and swale complex at P.H. Hoeft State Park near Rogers City, MI

White Camas is a member of the Lily family.  It's flower stalks grow up to 2 feet in height.  The flower stalks are surrounded by a basal cluster of 4-12 inch long grass-like leaves.  A few shorter leaves are present on the flower stalks.  The flowers grow in a panicle (branched cluster) and are white, yellow, or pale green, with dark spots near the base of the petals.  The flowers have six petals and may be up to 3/4" across.  The plant may bloom between May and September.

White Camas flower panicles

White Camas flowers - note the six petals and dark spots near the base of the petals

White Camas is known as Death Camas because of the presence of alkaloid chemicals.    These alkaloids are present in all parts of the plant highly toxic to both humans and livestock.   Ingesting even a small amount of this plant and can result in death due to alkaloid poisoning.

Basic Information

White Camas
Zigadenus glaucus

Height:  up to 2’ tall

Habitat:  swamps, bogs, shorelines, rocky outcrops and cliffs

Flower Color:  white to pale greenish

Bloom Time:  Mid  May – September


  1. are they becoming endangered?

  2. Replies
    1. Arizona lists one sub-species as being a concern, but as far as I can see the White Camass population is pretty secure overall. However, some local populations might be in danger of being wiped out due to habitat loss. I am sure that here in Michigan they are probably no longer found in much of their original range due to development of lakeshore habitats.