by Lyle Grisedale
Every spring we look forward to the blooming of our grassland flowers, especially the balsamroot. When the snow is gone and the first crocus flowers appear, we know that our hillsides and grasslands will soon be ablaze with brilliant yellow balsamroot flowers.
Also known as arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata), this plant is a member of the aster family. It flourishes on south-facing hillsides and on the grasslands throughout the East Kootenay and the Okanagan.
Balsamroot was an important food crop for members of local First Nations, who looked forward to harvesting it after the long winters when other food sources were still scarce. The roots were pit-cooked for hours and then dried and stored. All parts of balsamroot can be eaten — the leaves can be steamed or eaten raw; the taproots can be dried, roasted or steamed, and the seeds can be eaten raw or pounded for use as a flour. Balsamroot contains an inedible carbohydrate called inulin (a type of soluble fiber found in many plants) that, when cooked, turns to edible fructose.
First Nations peoples managed the crop by never harvesting the “mother” root, which could be as big as a person’s forearm and several decades old. Women always dug the balsamroot with root-digging sticks made of wood or antlers. The preferred size of root to dig was about as big as a carrot. The root also had medicinal uses — it could be boiled to produce resin to be used as a poultice for burns and cuts.
Several rituals were associated with the preparation of balsamroot. One tradition, according to ethnologist James Teit, was for young people to offer a prayer when eating balsamroot for the first time each season.
Now is the time to head outside and take in one of Mother Nature’s great performances. See you out there.