Wild Hyacinth is an erect unbranched perennial forb, growing from 1 to 2 feet high on a thick leafless flowering stem (a scape) that arises directly from the root. It is native to North America.
The leaves are all basal from the root, grass-like, 1/4 to 1/3 inch wide, smooth margins, with a distinct keel, but somewhat floppy, 6 to 12 inches long. They appear to be in whorl. Leaves die back by early to mid Summer.
The inflorescence is a raceme-like spike at the top of the scape, 7 to 18 inches high, buds clustered tightly at first and then elongating as the lower flower buds begin to open. There are 0 to 3 sterile bracts on the inflorescence.
The flowers are 6-parted with petals and sepals combined as tepals, and arranged in 2 whorls of 3 (but difficult to distinguish). Tepals are light blue to white, with 3 or 5 veins (but obscure) and forming a star shape when open, up to one inch across. The tepals are narrow, widest at the middle, tapering to a tip and to the base, they wither away after flowering after the seed capsule develops. There are 6 stamens with whitish filaments and yellow anthers. Stamens rise from receptacles at the base of the tepals. In the center is a large green 3-celled ovary with the style stigma having 3 small lobes. Each flower can be subtended by a narrow leaf-like bract which falls away early after flowering. Flowers are lightly perfumed.
Fruit: Flowers form an sub-globose shaped capsule, 3-angled with 3 chambers, that contains 2 to 5 shiny black ovoid seeds per cell, each seed with a small beak. The capsule is pale green to begin with and then turning light brown; its stalk is usually spreading to erect from the scape. Bulbs are best planted in the fall. Seeds will germinate the following Spring after a cold period.
Habitat: Wild Hyacinth grows from an ovoid bulb, 1 to 3 cm in diameter, with fibrous roots. It grows best in full to at lease partial sun, wet-mesic to dry-mesic moisture conditions, but there must be adequate moisture during the flowering period. Rich loamy high quality soils are best. Plants develop slowly but are usually long lived. Bulb offsets are not usually occurring and the plant's means of propagation is by reseeding. Close clusters of plants are uncommon as plants develop from where seeds fall, not by clonal offsets.
Names: Two older classifications are Camassia esculenta and Quamasia hyacinthina. The genus name Camassia, means 'camas' or 'bear-grass' and comes from the Nootka Chinook kamas which is a variant of Quamash used by Western North American natives who used the bulbs for food - hence the older genus name Quamasia. The species scilloides, means 'resembling Scilla' (another bulb plant genus), which is from the Greek skilla referring to the likeness to the Mediterranean plant Scilla marittima. Some references have re-assigned this species from the Lily family to the Agave family - the Agavaceae - on the basis of molecular evidence. Flora of North America has noted this but not yet published this change.
The author names for the current plant classification are as follows: First to classify was ‘Raf.’ which is for Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, (1783-1840), European polymath who traveled in the United States, lived here many years, collected specimens, and published over 6,700 binomial names for plants. He applied to be botanist on the Lewis & Clark expedition but Jefferson turned him down in favor of training Lewis to act as botanist and saving the expense of another person. His work was amended by ‘Cory’ which refers to Victor Louis Cory, (1880-1964) American botanist and taxonomist who worked at Texas A&M, Southern Methodist University and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. With Vivian L. Cory and Harris B. Parks, he published the first Catalogue of the Flora of Texas.
Comparisons: In certain states of the U.S. central plains region another species that is very closely related overlaps the range. C. angusta, Prairie Camas, has an longer inflorescence - 10 to 33 inches high, with numerous bracts on the inflorescence; the fruit capsules ovoid to ellipsoid with their stalks mostly incurving to erect and the plants usually flower 2 to 3 weeks later that C. scilloides.
Above: The inflorescence is a spike of flowers atop a scape. Note the small bracts on the scape below the flowers. Drawing from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
Below: Flowers have six tepals in 2 sets of 3 and 3 or 5 obscure veins on each tepal. Both structures are difficult to distinguish without a lens. The stigma of the style has 3 tiny lobes. Anthers and style are exserted far beyond the spreading tepals. Note the small greenish bract from the base of the flower stalk.
Below: 1st photo - flowers begin opening at the base of the spike, which then elongates as more buds open. 2nd photo - A 3-chambered seed pod forms and is spreading to erect on the old flower stalk.
Below: 1st photo - mature 3-chambered seed capsules, each chamber with 2 to 5 seeds. 2nd photo - The seeds are shiny black with a beak.
Below: The leaves are all basal from the root, with a center keel, and tend to flex over. Note the flowering scape just rising.
Below: The ovoid bulb, 1 to 3 cm in diameter
Notes: Eloise Butler first planted Wild Hyacinth in the Garden on Oct. 25, 1914 with bulbs obtained from Logansport Indiana. She used the older classification Camassia esculenta and noted the following year on June 3rd, that her bulbs were in bloom. They were still in the Garden when Martha Crone made her 1951 census but have not appeared on later lists. As a non-native, they have not been re-planted.
Wild Hyacinth is not native to Minnesota as we are too far northwest. It is a plant of the Mississippi River basin, with southern Wisconsin being a northern point, then east through the Great Lakes states and covering all the states from Pennsylvania south and west to Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, only Florida excepted. It is not found east and north of Pennsylvania. In Canada it is only found in the Lake Erie Islands of Ontario where it is considered threatened (pre Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources), as it is in Michigan and North Carolina. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin list it as endangered. There are six species of Camassia in North America, none found in Minnesota.
Lore and uses: Wild Hyacinth bulbs are starchy and edible and were used by North American natives. However the plant has a similar appearance to the poisonous Death Camas, Zigadenus nuttallii, and it areas where the two overlap (Southern Plains), it would be prudent to let sleeping bulbs lie.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"