One of the most widely utilized plants in Native American culture is the fern-leaved lomatium (Lomatium dissectum). Indigenous peoples used this member of the carrot family for food, medicine and ceremonial purposes.
Fern-leaved lomatium roots were boiled, dried and pounded into a flour. The flour was mixed with water, formed into a pancake shape and then either baked or dried – the “biscuit” of another common name for L. dissectum, fernleaf biscuitroot. A nourishing tea can also be brewed from fern-leaved lomatium roots. The young shoots of fern-leaved lomatium are edible raw. The seeds were used as flavoring in cooking.
Medicinally, infusions of fern-leaved lomatium were used to treat stomach problems, tuberculosis and arthritis. A poultice prepared from the roots was applied to wounds, cuts, bruises and rheumatic joints for healing and relief from pain. Even today a quick Internet search shows many sources for L. dissectum plants and medicinal compounds. This interest is not unfounded since fern-leaved lomatium preparations are shown to have antimicrobial and antiviral properties.
Ceremonially, fern-leaved lomatium was burned as incense by Native Americans. In addition, the young shoots were part of spring and “coming of age” rites among some groups.
Care must be taken to assure positive identification if one intends to ingest fern-leaved lomatium, also called fern-leaf desert parsley, because many other highly poisonous members of the parsley/carrot family share a similar appearance.
Since fern-leaved lomatium greens up and flowers early in the spring, often before the snow has completely melted and other plants begin to grow, it is considered a valuable early season forage for wildlife and domestic animals. Early spring pollinators, particularly bees, also visit fern-leaved lomatium.
A perennial that grows from a thick, long, woody taproot, L. dissectum is a highly variable species with several subspecies noted in the literature. Most of its large leaves, which are pinnately dissected three to five times and have a lace or fern-like appearance, originate from the base of the plant. The inflorescence is a compound umbel formed by ten to thirty umbellets at the top of a hollow, hairless, finely-ribbed stalk. The individual flowers in each umbellet are yellow or purple (I personally continue to look for a purple specimen.) and have five tiny petals. The entire plant can grow over three feet tall and is fragrant.
Fern-leaved lomatium is a native that can be found on rocky slopes and in dry meadows throughout North America west of the Rockies. It does not grow in deep shade.
These fern-leaved lomatium plants were photographed near the Pacific Crest Trail off of Clark Creek Road (Shasta County CA).