Finding Balsamroot
The pungent smell of sagebrush floods my senses as I climb down from the truck. I pause to breathe deeply, a heady mix of fresh mountain air and sage. The aroma is so characteristic of this high elevation basin dotted with sage and surrounded by forest, that for a brief moment it even calls up memories of other sagebrush valleys, in particular the Great Basin. Those ancient lakebeds lie east of these Warner Mountains in northeastern California.

We were driving from camp toward Eagleville but stopped here because I spotted a Balsamorhiza plant on the uphill side of the road. We have been looking everywhere for this plant; these mountains have the perfect habitat. Few in number this spring, Balsamroot looks a lot like Wyethia, which has the same low growth pattern. We have seen plenty of Wyethia, with its yellow flowers and distinctive Mule’s-ears leaves, which are large, grey-green, and fuzzy. Too much Wyethia is a sign of overgrazing. In the past the more delicate Balsamroot covered the American West, but being palatable to both wildlife and livestock, it is now uncommon and has even disappeared in some areas.

This is the 1970s. Our favorite time to come to the Warners is early summer before cattle are brought in for summer grazing. At this time of year the wildflowers are still luxuriant, the grasses untrampled. I’m all for multiple use of these mountains, but it’s true we can learn from a history of mistakes. In more recent days conservation and restoration are on everyone’s agenda. Given care and time western lands should recover. The presence of Balsamroot will be one indicator of overall range health.

I grab my art pack and trudge up the hill to take another look. I need an on–site accurate drawing of this wild edible plant for our book project. Don has his camera out and is already scouting the area for other specimens. Wildflowers are sprinkled across the hillside–yarrow, Indian Paint Brush, a few stray buttercups. The children go exploring, no doubt looking for lizards or animal sign in the open ground between sage and grass clumps. My path is a bit dry and rocky, but not too steep, and is marked by an occasional lava boulder or ponderosa pine tree.

The hill levels off a bit where my chosen specimen grows, its yellow, sunflower–like blooms happily lifted to the light. About 12–18″ tall, the perennial plant bears erect stems and large, basal leaves, that is, mostly growing directly from the base of the plant without branching. Handsome in their own way, the smooth, triangular leaves look like large arrowheads with wavy edges…to be continued.


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