Because arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorrhiza sagittata) has large basal leaves and bright yellow sunflower-like flowers, it is often confused with mule ears (Wyethis mollis). In the field, leaf shape distinguishes the two plants – balsamroot has triangular or arrow shaped leaves while the leaves of mule ears are lance shaped. From a distance the two plants are difficult to tell apart.
A perennial native to western North America, arrowleaf balsamroot is a member of the aster or sunflower family and thus the “flower” is actually a composite of tightly grouped disk and ray flowers. Large basal leaves which can reach up to a foot in length grow from a thick, woody taproot that resembles a carrot. These arrow shaped or triangular leaves are covered with white wooly hairs, particularly on the undersides, which give them a slight white tinge, especially early in the season. The leaf margins are smooth. The leafless stem is topped by a large, solitary, buttery yellow flower. Balsamroot has a sticky, pine scented sap from which the name derives. A field of balsamroot plants looks so cheerful.
Arrowleaf balsamroot grows on dry well drained slopes or in open pine forests throughout the West, often in the company of sagebrush.
The entire balsamroot plant is edible. Native Americans dug the large roots and ate them cooked or raw or they ground them into a nutritious flour. The stems and leaves in the early spring can be eaten raw in salads or boiled as a potherb. The seeds can be roasted and eaten or also ground into a flour. And a tea can be made from the flowers and/or leaves. Perhaps because we have so many balsamroot plants in an area of our property (Lookout CA) that is left undisturbed for wildlife, I decided several years ago to utilize this “resource”. I tried the roots, stems, leaves and flowers cooked, raw, boiled, roasted and as tea. Forget it unless you are absolutely starving! The bitter pine or balsam flavor was overwhelming, no matter what I tried. Now Leonard and I simply enjoy the sunny color of the balsamroot and do not try to eat the plant.
Balsamroot refers to the thick taproot (rhiza = root) and the pine scented sap. The species name, sagittata, derives from the arrow shape of the leaves. There are several other species of balsamroot distinguished by their leaf shapes.
These arrowleaf balsamroot were photographed near Lower Hat Creek (Shasta County CA).