Lewis's Description

Studies in the Anatomy of a Plant

Camassia quamash

Rendering by Bob Gilman

plant with long green leaves and purple petals

© 2004 VIAs Inc./Bob Gilman

Comment by James L. Reveal:

Elderly scholar, James L. Reveal, sitting in a field of camasThe plant pictured here, based on the variety seen at Lolo Pass differed from what he saw in the "Columbian vally." The Lolo Pass plant is the var. quamash. Two other varieties are found mainly in the Columbia River area. West of the Cascade Range is the var. maxima, but a shorter plant—and the one Lewis was likely referring to specifically in his description—is the var. breviflora, which occurs along the Columbia east of the Cascade Range. Clearly, Lewis had a keen eye to note the differences.

William Clark, pushing on in advance of the hungry men of the Corps, came upon two adjacent Indian villages totaling about 30 lodges on Weippe Prairie1 late in the morning of Friday, September 20, 1805. Soon he met three Indian boys and a man, and some other women and children. Their first conversation, carried out in sign language, must have included Clark's mention of the hunger he and the Corps of Discovery were suffering, as they soon gave him and his six hunters "a Small piece of Buffalow meat, Some dried Salmon beries & roots in different States, Some round and much like an onion which they call quamash the Bread or Cake is called Pas-she-co Sweet,2 of this they make bread & Supe they also gave us the bread made of this root all of which we eate hartily."

At Weippe Prairie on June 11, 1806, while waiting for the snow to melt on the high ridges of the Bitterroot Range, Lewis found time to write one of the longest, most detailed descriptions of any of the plant specimens he collected. In the next 13 pages we present Lewis's description, detail by detail, illustrated by digital artist Bob Gilman, and with commentaries by James L. Reveal, professor emeritus of botany at the University of Maryland. We choose to reproduce Lewis's description exactly as he wrote it in terms of spelling as well as punctuation—or the lack of it. Even though the frequent absence of punctuation may compel the reader to study each phrase or sentence carefully to extract the precise meaning, it serves to imphasize the urgency of Lewis's business here, which is essentially observation.

What is remarkable about Lewis's description is the close attention he pays to a host of details, including some that he knows a dried specimen will not reflect, such as color and shade, texture, relative moisture, flexibility, and delicate structural relationships. He analyzes the plant with the loving eye of a farmer. His curiosity is intensified by the sensuous, tactile sensitivity of an herbalist like his own mother. His vision is clarified, no doubt, by the use of a magnifying glass, or perhaps the "microscope" from his sextant. He may have asked questions of his Nez Perce hosts, for there is more to his account than he could have discovered on his own. Evidently he has studied Barton's Elements of Botany3 and Miller's Linnaeus,4 which were in the company's portable library, for he employs some of the current anatomical and morphological nomenclature with exceptional accuracy and appropriateness.

All of the above notwithstanding, and despite the excellence of his academic exercise, it was, as Gary Moulton has pointed out, the specimen of the plant he collected on June 23 after their return to "the flatts," that enabled Frederick Pursh to define Camassia quamash precisely and accurately as a new species.

Captain Lewis wrote:

As I have had frequent occasion to mention the plant which the Chopunnish call quawmash I shall here give a more particular discription of that plant and the mode of preparing it for food as practiced by the Chopunnish and others in the vicinity of the Rocky Mountains with whom it forms much the greatest portion of their subsistence.


Regarding the plant's habitat, Lewis continues:

we have never met with this plant but in, or adjacent to, a piney or fir timbered country, and there, always in the open grounds and glades; in the Columbian vally and near the coast it is to be found in small quantities, and inferior in size to that found in this neighborhood,5 and in the high rich flats and vallees within the rocky mountains. it delights in a black rich moist soil, and even grows most luxuriantly where the land remains from 6 to nine inches under water untill the seed are nearly perfect which in this neighbourhood or on these flats, is about the last of this month. neare the river where I had an opportunity of observing it the seed were beginning to ripen on the 9th inst.6 and the soil was nearly dry. it seems devoted to it's particular soil and situation, and you will seldom find it more than a few feet from the inundated soil tho' within it's limits it grows very closely in short almost as much so as the bulbs will permit

1. Now usually pronounced WEE-ipe, or OY-ipe by the Nez Perce people, the literal meaning of the name of this great meadow and gathering-place is so old that its original meaning has been lost. From the harvest-time for camas bulbs in June and July, until the onset of autumn—about the time the Corps of Discovery arrived there—it was one of the principal summer residences of the Nez Perce people. Ralph Space, The Lolo Trail: A History and a Guide to the Trail of Lewis and Clark (2nd ed., Missoula, Montana: Historic Montana Publishing, 2001), 35-36.

2. Camas bread is indeed sweet and inviting to hearty appetites. Some people today say it somewhat resembles carrot cake.

3. Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815), a Philadelphia physician, linguist, and botanist, taught Lewis the craft of pressing, drying, and preserving the plants he was to discover on the expedition. His Elements of Botany, published in 1803, was conceived as a reference handbook for students and researchers in the field.

4. John Miller (1715-1790), a London-based, German-born engraver of botanical subjects, published his English translation of works by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linneaus, titled Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnæus, in 1779 (Volume 1) and An Illustration of the Termini Botanici of Linnæus in 1789 (Volume 2). The flavor of Linnaeus's work is represented in the beginning of Miller's introduction: "The Sexual System, as invented and given to the World by Linnaeus, is built or founded on the Male and Female Parts of FRUCTIFICATION. By Fructification is meant Flower and Fruit; and is disposed according to the Number, Proportion and situation of the Stamens or Pistils, or the Male and Female Organs." The hand-tinted plates would have been of significant help to Lewis.

5. By "this neighbourhood" he meant the deep, warm canyon of the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River, near today's Kamiah, Idaho. At Weippe Prairie, 2500 to 3000 feet above, and elsewhere on the high plateaus to the north and south of the canyon, the camas crops would have been several days behind those in the valleys below. Owing to global warming, the growing season begins nearly two weeks earlier today than it did 200 years ago.

6. Two days previously—June 9.

Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee