General: erect perennial, stem mostly 20-50 cm tall, from oval bulbs covered with blackish scales.
Leaves: mainly basal, grass-like, 10-30 cm long and 3-7 mm broad, keeled. Stem leaves few, strongly reduced upward.
Flowers: many in a simple, terminal, spike-like cluster, but sometimes the cluster branched at the base, rarely over 15 cm long in fruit. Flower stalks strongly ascending, 5-20 mm long. The 6 tepals white to cream-colored, unequal, the outer ones 4.5-5 mm long, ovate to ovate-lanceolate, blunt to pointed, the claw almost lacking to as much as 1 mm long, the inner tepals about 0.5 mm longer and with a narrower claw 0.75-1.25 mm long, the gland yellowish-green, oval, usually broader than long. Stamens from about equal to the tepals to 1 mm longer, attached at the base of the ovary. Styles 2-3 mm long.
Fruits: capsules, 3-lobed, 8-15 mm. long. Seeds light brown, 5-6 mm long.
Dry meadows to grassy hillsides, sagebrush slopes, and montane forest in exposed places, in most parts of MT. Also from s. B.C. and Alberta to WA, OR, CA, CO, and e. to SD, ND and NE.
The Mendocino, Montana, Paiute and Okanagon Indians made a poultice of mashed bulbs of death camas applied to rheumatism and to painful bruises and sprains.
All parts of this plant contain the poisonous alkaloid zygadenine, which some claim to be more potent than strychnine. One bulb, raw or cooked, can be fatal. Poisoning result from confusing these bulbs with those of edible species. The bulbs of death camas are oval and covered with blackish scales. This plant causes fatalities among livestock. The lethal dose is estimated at between 2.0-6.0% of animal body weight, and this species is considered to be more toxic than mountain death camas, Zigadenus elegans. Symptoms of poisoning are similar for all species of animals. Symptoms in sheep include excessive salivation, froth around the nose and mouth, nausea, vomiting, muscular weakness, ataxia, possible coma, and death. The heart fails before respiration. Postmortem findings reveal the heart in complete diastole. Lesions include severe pulmonary congestion, hemorrhage, and edema. Humans have been poisoned after ingesting the bulbs and flowers. In most cases, the bulbs are mistaken for onions. A 2-year-old child became ill after eating the blossoms. Symptoms of poisoning include vomiting, slow breathing, inconsciousness (though responsive to pain or movement), hyperactive tendons and limbs, pupil dilation, and hypertension. The alkaloids cause local irritation when ingested and affect the cardiovascular system by slowing the heart and decreasing blood pressure. Treatment includes emesis, activated charcoal, and saline cathartic. Atropine was also given.
Our specimen belong to var. gramineus (Rydb.) Walsh, which has upper stem leaves, except the greatly reduced bracts of the inflorescence, all sheathing. Outer tepals almost clawless, the claw scarcely 0.5 mm long. Raceme sometimes compound.
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