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Nature on Trail: Balsamroot


By Erika Klimecky

Cultured flowers found in gardens and vases are sweet and nice and perfectly sculpted, but when nature, on her own, rolls back the stark snow and covers a hillside in dewy golden flowers, I am always captivated. One flower that charms me with its wild, gorgeous gold is the arrowleaf balsamroot. My first run-in with this wild beauty was hiking in the Methow Valley, on the dry, east side of the north Cascades. Snow still stood feet-high in the pass on Highway 20, but in the warmer, dry side of the mountains countless knee-high tufts bobbed their sunny faces at me along my hike, putting a spring in my step and a smile on my face.

Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) is also commonly called the Oregon sunflower and is a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae). It ranges across the western United States as far south as Arizona and as far east as the Dakotas, and north into western Canada. Balsamroot prefers dry sunny slopes where it can drink in springtime sunshine, but can also make its home in the understory of forest lands throughout its range. The silvery green foliage is, true to its name, arrow-shaped. Sitting in dense clumps, flowers cluster in the middle of each plant, surrounded by the arrow-shaped leaves, which grow from the base of the cluster. The flowers are bright, sunflower yellow with a yellow disk in the center, and can be up to 4 inches across. It is very drought tolerant, winter hardy, trample tolerant, and even fire resistant, with a taproot which regenerates leaves and flowers after it has been top-burned during fire.

Found in elevations from 1,000 to 9,000 feet, balsamroot blooms in the spring, peaking in May and June in most Washington locations. Once the flowers have faded, the leaves dry up and the plant is almost undetectable until the following spring.

Balsamroot is a popular food for wildlife and domestic animals and the whole plant is suitable for human consumption as well. Lewis and Clark recorded Native Americans harvesting balsamroot for its seeds which they ground into flour; its stems, which they ate raw, right off the plant; and its large taproot, which has a bitter, balsam flavor. The leaves have been used for tobacco and for a plethora of medicinal purposes from toothache cures to burn remedies. The root can even be used as a coffee substitute. 

Had I known all of these things when I first happened upon the plants, I might have stopped long enough to rub a leaf or taste a stem. As it was, I was content to settle myself down on my belly in the dry spring dirt, and take a few photos of the golden beauties.