Captain Vancouver and Camas

Saranne, or lily, harvesting on the Strait of Juan de Fuca in May 1792.

I am sure it is well known to local ethnobotanists, but I don’t recall seeing the above account of plant cultivation reference before.  It is from page 123 of Captain Vancouver’s “Voyage of Discovery …. ” (1801 edition, which you can browse online here).

I didn’t figure out the exact locale of this camp but it is probably very close to Port Discovery, near Port Townsend at the north end of Puget Sound.  The camp is carefully noted as a plant-harvesting camp and also a place where shellfish were being processed. The houses are mere lean-tos.  It is interesting to see that the considerable number of “eighty or a hundred” women, men and children were engaged in turning over the earth here, “like swine” (!).  It gives a vivid impression of a well-orchestrated, community-level harvesting event.  Vancouver comments favourably on the product, a sort of paste or flour.

Vancouver refers to one plant as a species of wild onion, while the other two plants being cultivated are termed as resembling “saranne”.  That being a new term to me, I turned to the OED only to find it not listed, which is quite surprising.  Googling turned up some interesting historical references though, in which it is clearly a term used for members of the Lily family (camas is also a member of this family).  For example, see this 1792 clip from Pennant’s Arctic Zoology Volume 3, on the use of Saranne, or Lilium kamchatschense, by the inhabitants of (yes) Kamchatka (let your eyes skim, gentle reader, over the foregoing section on the use and abuse of hallucinogenic mushrooms). Perhaps this term, Saranne, was in use around the North Pacific at that time but it strikes me as odd it did not find its way into the OED.

Anyway, a few pages down from p. 123 you can also find a nice description of the Coast Salish wool dog, which is described as being much like a Pomeranian.

Camas flowers and bulbs. Source: Brenda Beckwith Ph.D. thesis, 2004. http://hdl.handle.net/1828/632

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