What Pollinates a Poisonous Plant?

By Riley Wates, NBSBC Board Member

April 27, 2020

On left, death camas beginning to flower (Sooke, BC). On right, flowering

camas (Saanich, BC). Photos taken by Riley Waytes.

Meadow death camas (Toxicoscordion venenosum, syn. Zigadenus venenosus) is a flowering plant native to British Columbia. On the coast the creamy-white flower clusters of death camas can often be found in the vicinity of the blue-flowered common camas (Camassia quamash) (Pojar and Mackinnon 1994). Despite their similar names, death camas is not closely related to common camas. However, the bulbs of both plants can be easily mistaken for each other, which can be problematic where the species co-occur. While camas bulbs are edible, death camas bulbs are not. Their consumption can have very dire consequences for humans and other animals and may prove fatal. Meadow death camas contains neurotoxic alkaloids, including zygacine. All parts of the plant are considered toxic, including the roots, leaves, and flowers.

Field of death camas flowers. Photo taken at Whistler, BC by Jasna Guy.

Death camas is rarely visited by most pollinators, for good reason. The poisonous compounds produced by death camas plants (Toxicoscordion spp.) have been found in both the nectar and pollen (Cane et al. 2004). Adult pollinators feeding on nec