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Montana Roots

A Walk in the Woods


Randi de Santa Anna

Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata)

I didn't fully appreciate how incredible our balsamroot bloom was until we took my mother to the Bison Range. Mom was a flower gardener and had lived back East her whole life so we weren't sure how she'd respond to the drier habitat balsamroot prefers.

The flowers were at their peak, as they are right now in the Seeley Swan. From the Bison Range vista point Mom looked out at the endless, overlapping hillsides cloaked in yellow blooms, interlaced with the purples, whites and pinks from other wildflowers.

That night she thanked me, telling me the balsamroot were far more beautiful and moving than any horticultural garden.

"I have never seen anything like it before," she said smiling. "The earth made all those flowers with no help from human hands."

Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) is a member of the Composite Family (Asteraceae) and the entire plant is edible. The name comes from its arrow-shaped leaves and the balsam smell of its taproot.

Balsamroot is a very important year-round food source for all classes of wildlife and domestic livestock and is being used to help restore landscapes and improve grazing lands.

Native Americans ate all parts of balsamroot and also used it medicinally in a variety of ways because of its antibacterial properties. The seeds are plentiful but only remain viable for five to six years, unlike some native grass and forb (flower) seeds, which can still germinate after being in the ground a couple of centuries!

Balsamroot sprouts each spring from its deep taproot, which can grow to be four inches thick and eight feet deep. Once the plant dies down, it's brittle leaves litter the landscape. They are combustible and will carry a low fire but balsamroot survives fire quite well because of its large taproot and actually benefits from low-intensity fires.

The girth of each plant gets wider over the years as it adds whorls of new leaves every growing season. If you examine a hillside of balsamroot you'll see some are quite small but others can be two feet across at the base. Those are the "old growth" balsamroot and they can be up to 60 years old!

I couldn't agree with my mother more. We are indeed, blessed each spring to be surrounded by such vibrant color and life!

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