Balsam Root through the Seasons
I live in the Methow Valley in the northeastern cascades of Washington State. The valley is just over 50 miles long and is located a couple hours (as the crow flies) from the Canadian border and 4 hours from the Pacific Ocean.
The valley boasts of large tracts of wilderness and a variety of ecological niches, from the sagebrush steppe to riparian rivers, to evergreen forests to alpine peaks.
Each season in the Methow is distinct with intense variations in temperature and plant life. In May, the otherwise drab hillsides of the sagebrush steppe burst alive with a diversity of wildflowers, the most prominent being the flower of the valley, Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagitatta).
This wild flower of the Asteraceae family covers hillsides from April to June, peaking in the middle of May. Besides being a visual delight, this plant has played an important role in the ecology of the Methow for thousands of years. Dense roots run deep into the rocky soils, preventing erosion; large leaves provide habitat to many scurrying animals and the leaves, flowers and seeds provide an important food source to mammals as small as field mice, to ungulates to humans. The resinous roots have been an important medicine for humans for countless eons.
This plant grows all over western North America. The USDA range map shows it growing as far east as the Dakotas, as far south as the US/Mexican border and throughout western Canada as well.
As the snows are receding in the valley, balsam root offers its first gifts of the growing season. Locating last year’s foliage, smashed flat by the heavy snow, we can find the beginning sprouts of this year’s growth. These sprouts are best eaten when they are about an inch in length. As some of the first fresh food to appear, these sprouts are a welcome sign of the turning of the seasons.
We harvest these sprouts by taking only one or two from each plant we walk by to ensure plenty of new growth for the plant. We’ve eaten them raw or cooked them in stir-fries and soups and we mostly prefer them raw, eating them one by one as we harvest from large stands. The sprouts have a strong resinous taste that is mildly pungent and overall pleasant.
We’ve read ethnobotanical reports of the roots from very young plants being eaten. We’ve tried this multiple times, harvesting very small roots - about the diameter of a pencil - and cooking them for extended periods of time, but have yet to yield anything other than a hard woody root that is not edible.
As the spring continues on, the sprouts grow into leaves and flower stalks, both of which can be peeled and eaten, again taking precautions not to over harvest from one plant.
In late April the hillsides are turning green, the first flowers are beginning to emerge and the anticipation of yellow hillsides fills the community. Talk at the farmer’s market centers around whether this will be a good flower year or not. Tourists ask, what are those wild sunflowers on the hills?
The leaves are large and arrow shaped, hence the common name. Ethnobotanical reports indicate these large leaves were poulticed and used on burns and wounds.
Recently, someone commented to me that this flower grows like a weed, but I was quick to interject. Although it’s very common in our valley, arrowleaf balsamroot plants take many many years to mature and are difficult to transplant. When we harvest this plant we harvest with respect for each plant, understanding the abundance of this plant is a gift of the valley.
The last of the flower show is fading by mid June, and July and August will bring the next gifts of this sunflower plant, seeds!
We’ve experimented harvesting the seeds in a couple different ways over the past years. There is a small window of time to optimally harvest the seeds. We like to collect the seed heads when the seeds are visually mature but the head is still somewhat tight. Mature seeds are black instead of a dark green color. If we wait too long to harvest the seeds then many have already been eaten or have fallen to the ground.
We harvest the whole seed head and then lay them out on a sheet in the sun. As the seed head dries, the mature seeds will fall from the seed head and onto the sheet. The seed heads can be further shaken to loosen a few stubborn seeds, but not overly so.
One year my husband did his best to get every single seed from the seed head. He diligently split open the seed heads in his quest for thoroughness. He discovered this is not the way to go about it. Besides getting a few stubborn mature seeds, this method will also remove any seeds that are not mature and. worse, will also loosen irritating hairs that will then have to be painstakingly removed from the seeds.
It’s far better to only take what gingerly falls from the seed heads and leave the rest to go back to the earth. We find that in a couple of hours one person can gather about a quart of seeds. I do not know the exact nutritional value of the seeds but I assume that, like most seeds, they are high in proteins and oils, making them a good source of food.
The seeds are quite small. Shelling these is not an energy efficient way to spend your time and the shell is hard enough to be annoying to eat. We’ve tried milling the whole seeds by grinding them with a mortar and pestle but the seeds go rancid amazingly fast. Roasting them does not soften the shell quite enough to make them pleasant to eat.
The best way we’ve found to eat them is by putting them in our stew pot and simmering them for several hours.
Seed heads are an important food source for birds, rodents and deer so we consciously harvest these from a large area and leave plenty for the wildlife.
By mid-August the arrowleaf balsamroot is a brown shell of its spring glory. The once green leaves are brown and crinkled and only a few dried out seeds heads stand where hundreds of yellow flowers shone just months before. But, as herbalists, we know the plant is still pulsating and alive beneath the soil surface.
The root is the main part used as medicine. Herbalist Michael Moore describes arrowleaf balsamroot as a cross between echinacea and osha. I can’t personally attest to arrowleaf balsamroot being an immunomodulator but it certainly has an affinity for the respiratory system.
Like many resins the root is decidedly pungent in taste. A small taste of the root and I feel the warming and drying qualities as the energy goes to my lungs, creating the need to clear my throat or cough. Oftentimes taking a few drops of the tincture creates a reflex of taking a large breath.
I recently was teaching a class to a group of students, many of whom had a cold. Passing around the tincture of arrowleaf balsamroot, students with congestion in their lungs reported feeling expectoration from their lungs and students with head colds felt stuck mucous in their sinuses start to release.
I prefer to use arrowleaf balsamroot as a fresh root tincture in 95% alcohol. I often combine this tincture with elderberry, osha and honey.
Arrowleaf balsamroot is a stimulating expectorant, stimulating diaphoretic, and an antimicrobial suitable for sore throats.
I’ve received the best results when using it as a simple for productive coughs that last beyond other symptoms of the original cold or flu.
For sore throats I like to mix 10 - 20 drops of the tincture with a spoonful of honey that is then swallowed. I often combine it with a tincture of cottonwood buds.
I have yet to use arrowleaf balsamroot for a UTI, but Michael Moore describes arrowleaf balsamroot as an disinfecting diuretic. Darcy Williamson reports that taken in too large of a dose it will create kidney irritation.
For external use it infuses into oil very nicely; because of the resins I use heat to extract the root. This warming aromatic oil relieves pain brought on by blood stagnation such as sore shoulder muscles or tension associated with coldness. Used as a liniment it also lends itself well to sore muscles and can also be used to disinfect wounds or kill fungi living on the skin.
Although lacking experience with this myself I’ve seen ethnobotanical records indicating that arrowleaf balsamroot is useful for gastrointestinal complaints and toothaches.
I only need one small root a year to make enough tincture and oil for myself and clients. Heading out into the brown forest outside of my cabin I look for plants with a modest amount of foliage indicating the size of the root.
Large plants can be several decades old and boast a large gnarly root. These large roots can easily be 5-8 feet deep into the earth. Harvesting arrowleaf balsamroot is no easy task, so I am content with my smaller sized roots and leave the mature plants to grow.
Besides searching for the right size I also look for plants on flat ground. Those plants on steep hillsides are doing an important job of keeping the hillside in place. Lastly, I harvest from a well-developed stand.
|Traditional style digging tool made from ocean spray and douglas fir.|
I use a traditional digging tool for my root harvests. I find sticks are often easier to use as a harvest tool than shovels since shovels can easily slice roots and can often get caught on the plethora of rocks hiding in the soil where arrowleaf balsamroots live. Patience and time rewards me with a taproot the size of a large carrot. A hard outer bark envelopes a woody root in the center. I break apart the outer bark with a hammer, mince the inner bark and tincture them both. The resins from the root cover the cutting board, knife and hands. Alcohol works well to clean them off.
In the north, winter is a time for animals and plants to rest. In our valley the ground is covered with many feet of snow blanketing all the plants beneath the soil. Arrowleaf balsamroot rests in its roots, waiting until spring to bring forth its many gifts once more.
Above ground we nestle next to the wood stove and give our thanks for the medicine of arrowleaf balsamroot.
Common Name: Arrowleaf Balsamroot
Scientific Name: Balsamorhiza sagittata
Description: Perennial growing throughout western north America as far east as the Dakotas, as far south as California and throughout western Canada as well. It grows in a variety of habitats, including forested mountains to the sage brush steppe.
The taproot is covered in a hard bark and is fairly resinous. Depending on the growing habits and age of the plant, the root can reach several meters into the ground and weigh over 30 pounds.
The leaves can be fairly large, around 20 inches in length and are arrow shaped or triangular.
The flower looks like a sunflower with yellow ray flowers. The entire flower head is about the size of a small fist.
The seeds are the size of a grain of rice and are darkly colored ranging from green to brown to black depending on the maturity.
Properties: Pungent, warm/dry, stimulating expectorant, stimulating diaphoretic, anti-microbial, anti-fungal
Strong affinity for the respiratory system.
This article was originally published in the Plant Healer Magazine.