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Alaska Wildflowers | White

Flowering mountain death camas in the interior of Alaska.

Death camas

Anticlea elegans

Common Names:

Mountain death camas (or deathcamas)
Smooth camas
White camas
Elegant camas
Wand lily
Alkali grass

Synonyms:

Zigadenus elegans (former name – no longer accepted)
Zigadenus alpinus
Zigadenus elegans ssp. elegans
Anticlea coloradensia

Genus: Anticlea
Family: Melanthiaceae
Order: Liliales

Duration:

Perennial

Uses

WHOLE PLANT IS EXTREMELY POISONOUS – FATAL TO HUMANS AND LIVESTOCK (Akaloid toxins)

I do not recommend the plant be used for anything and take no responsibility for its use, the following are documented uses for information only. (I would refrain from using any plant with “death” in the name.)

There are some documented uses by Native American tribes of death camas being used as a rub or salve to alleviate pain. The Ethnobotany of the Thompson Indians of British Columbia describes the root being pulverized and baked to be used as a salve on painful areas. The Ramah Navaho used a cold infusion of the plant as a lotion for coyote bites. You can find more on the Native American Ethnobotany Database.

Toxicity

There are 15 varieties of death camas in the US. The bulb and leaves are the most toxic parts of the plant along with the dried seeds and capsules, containing several steroidal alkaloids. ingestion causes muscular weakness and tremors, ataxia, hypotension, excessive salivation and vomiting, eventually leading to convulsions and death. In humans, ingestion of two bulbs is likely to cause death. It joins larkspur as a common fatal poison to livestock because of it’s habitat in meadows.

Identification

Mountain death camas is a lily growing from a ovoid bulb 1.5-3×1-2 cm. It has many basal, long, proximal leaf blades. The leaves are bluish-green and slightly folded down the centerline and approximately 35 cm (13 in) long. The stem is 30-60 cm (12-24 in) tall. The inflorescence is composed of loosely spaced greenish-white or cream flowers on a raceme. Each flower has six petals (3 petals and 3 sepals that look alike) approximately 1.5-2 cm in diameter. The stamens are about as long as the petals. It has bracts that are often tinged purple or pink.

Distribution and Habitat

Anticlea elegans is found throughout Alaska , Yukon, and parts of the Northwest Territory. It’s range extends down the rocky mountains and portions of Pacific Northwest and across the northern plains states to New York. Its common habitat is moist grasslands, bogs in coniferous forests, and on the shores of rivers and lakes.

Zigadenus elegans range mape. Image source: USDA Plants Database

Classification

RankScientific Name (Common Name)
KingdomPlantae  (plants)
SubkingdomViridiplantae  (green plants)
InfrakingdomStreptophyta  (land plants)
SuperdivisionEmbryophyta 
DivisionTracheophyta  (vascular plants)
SubdivisionSpermatophytina  (seed plants) phanérogames
ClassMagnoliopsida 
SuperorderLilianae
OrderLiliales 
FamilyMelanthiaceae 
GenusAnticlea Kunth (deathcamas, anticlea)
SpeciesAnticlea elegans (Pursh) Rydb. (mountain deathcamas)

References and Further Reading

Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers, Pratt, Verna E. pg 61

11. Zigadenus elegans Pursh, Fl. Amer. Sept. 1: 241. 1814. Mountain death camas; zigadène élégant, Flora of North America (www.eFloras.org)

Zigadenus elegans, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Search Results: zigadenus elegans, Native American Ethnobotany Database

Death Camas, Colorado State University | Guide To Poisonous Plants

Plant of the Week: Mountain Deathcamas (Zigadenus elegans), USDA and U.S. Forest Service

All web sources accessed September of 2020 unless otherwise noted

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