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Arrowleaf Balsamroot brings splash of color to home

by KINNIKINNICK NATIVE PLANT SOCIETY
| June 6, 2021 1:00 AM

Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) appears in spring or early summer as a spectacular splash of bright yellow dotting sunny meadows and open forest understories.

Also known as Oregon sunflower or spring sunflower, this member of the sunflower family is common in mid-elevation parts of the Northwestern United States and western Canada. In 1806, the Lewis and Clark expedition collected specimens near the White Salmon river.

An impressive cluster of large basal leaves with smooth edges are coated with hairs giving them a fuzzy, grey-green look. The plant's common name, “arrowleaf,” and its species name, “sagittata,” are descriptive of the elongated arrowhead-shaped leaves, which were used as insulation in shoes to keep the feet warm.

In late spring or early summer, colorful flowers rise on 1- to 2-foot stems above the leaves giving the impression of a golden bouquet. Each 2- to 4-inch flower head is made up of center disk flowers and a fringe of ray flowers with one large petal each. While individual flowers are not particularly fragrant, a sunlit field has a spicy, chocolaty aroma. Pollinated primarily by a solitary native bee, Osmia californica, one acre of Arrowleaf Balsamroot requires approximately 67 such bees.

Pacific Northwest tribes used all parts of the plant for food or medicines. Dried roots and oil-rich seeds were stored for winter. The large, starchy taproot (8 ft. long by 4 in. diameter) was baked or steamed in pits for 3 days to sweeten it. Among other uses, it makes a fair coffee substitute. Young, fresh leaves were a welcome green in the spring and have a mild citrus flavor. Medicinally, Arrowleaf Balsamroot can be used as an antibacterial poultice to treat blisters, sores, insect bites, bruises and wounds.

Drought tolerant and long-lived, Arrowleaf Balsamroot is a dry-site sunlover, but it tolerates sunny moist habitats. Because its deep taproot offers some protection, it regrows rapidly in burned areas. Its leaves offer browse for deer, elk and big-horn sheep while birds and rodents eat the seeds.

Arrowleaf Balsamroot grows in the Dry Rock habitat in the North Idaho Native Plant Arboretum. Open to the public, parking for the Arboretum is at 611 S. Ella Ave. or on the street.

Arrowleaf Balsamroot is found on page 126 of the KNPS publication, "Landscaping with Native Plants in the Idaho Panhandle", available at local bookstores and the Bonner County History Museum. Native Plant Notes are created by the Kinnikinnick Native Plant Society. To learn more about KNPS and the North Idaho Native Plant Arboretum, visit www.nativeplantsociety.org.