by Julie Cannon
Broadcast 5.18 & 5.21.2021
There’s not much that brings me more pure joy in springtime than a hillside full of yellow bouquets of arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata).
I drive eastbound on the section of I-90 that runs along the city of Missoula on my way to work each day. As spring unfolds, I find myself watching the North Hills closely, anxious for the first signs of balsamroot – first the low basal leaves emerging from the ground and then what the botanists refer to as the inflorescences, the cluster of yellow flowers at the top of the tall stems. Once sighted I know it won’t be long before my own hillside, at a slightly higher elevation in the Grant Creek drainage, comes alive with a wash of dancing yellow flowers that never fail to delight me.
The display also delights my husband, who has amassed a collection of several hundred photos of this cousin of the sunflower. Every year, typically in May or early June when the balsamroot reaches full bloom, I watch as he hikes the hill behind our home, camera in hand, carefully stepping between the plants, looking for just the right light and angle to capture the display.
We cherish this time each year, seeing our old perennial friends re-emerge from their deep roots up through the rocky soil that covers our hillside of pine and spruce. We delight in seeing the spread of new plants born of seeds most likely spread by our resident ground squirrels and birds. The site of this annual bloom warms our hearts and feeds our souls.
A review of the past years’ pictures spikes a childlike curiosity in both of us. Through the zoom lens of the camera, we look closely at the pictures of the plants in their various stages. The new growth emerging up through last year’s wilted leaves. The long center stems, some of which are two feet tall. We feel our excitement grow as we see pictures of the buds unfolding, bursting into the multi-petaled flowers that soon will be nourishing the local pollinators. The annual display of yellow-gold heals and provides spiritual nourishment much in the way the balsamroot provided bodily nourishment and healing for the Native American ancestors who inhabited our hillside long before us.
We’ve learned that virtually the entire plant is edible and useful, starting with the long taproots which dive up to 8 feet down into the soil and which were often ground into meal for cakes. Boiled roots were also commonly used as a salve for healing wounds or made into tea which was used as an expectorant to treat tuberculosis or whooping cough. The young sagittate, or arrow-shaped leaves and stems, were peeled and eaten raw, boiled, or steamed. The more mature silvery pale green leaves, which are typically 6 inches wide by 18 inches long, were used to wrap and soothe skin wounds or rashes. The seeds, smaller than but similar to sunflower seeds, were dried or roasted for snacks.
Centuries later, the balsamroot continues to nourish in multiple ways. It feeds the wildlife that frequents our hillside all year round. It’s safe to assume the flowers are the tastiest to the deer and elk but the wilted leaves also provide them a wintertime meal. Much like some current roadside restoration efforts, the taproots now help to nourish the soil on our hillside. They stabilize the hill, which was regraded several years ago during the replacement of an old crumbling retaining wall. They also seem to intimidate the return of the knapweed we once struggled with, a confirmation of the common notion that their presence indicates healthy land.
We are grateful. Grateful not only for the deep roots that stabilize the hill, for feeding our beloved pollinators and furry friends, for reliably returning each year, but mostly for igniting our senses with pure joy.
Every week since 1991, Field Notes has inquired about Montana’s natural history. Field Notes are written by naturalists, students, and listeners about the puzzle-tree bark, eagle talons, woolly aphids, and giant puffballs of Western, Central and Southwestern Montana and aired weekly on Montana Public Radio.
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