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Arrow-Leaf Balsamroot

by Marc Dilley

Unless you are new to North Central Washington, or have been living in a cave most of your life, you have likely heard of our wild sunflower, Balsamroot Balsamorhiza sagittata, arguably the most famous, widespread, and ecologically dominant regional wildflower.  A smaller and much less common species in the same genus, the Rock Balsamroot B. hookeri, occurs in the extreme southern ends of Chelan County in lithosol (rocky, fast draining) soils such as the Jumpoff Ridge area.

On May 18, 1980, an event of global consequence occurred west of the Cascade crest in Washington State. By early morning of that fateful day, every resident of North Central Washington knew that Mt. St Helens had finally erupted for real. Its ash plume spread over much of the eastern half of the state causing problems everywhere and covering what had been another event of consequence with a layer of gray ash. The other event was, in contrast, a quiet one, a biological episode that few residents of Chelan County were aware of even though it was happening all around them. This was one of the great synchronized blooms of Balsamroot. In such a year, the flower heads are so thick and numerous that leaves and lesser plant species are simply pushed aside by the swarming mass of golden color. By the middle of April and extending into May, if rains continue and temperatures remain cool, hillsides above the Leavenworth-Wenatchee corridor are literally brilliant yellow and  pose a dangerous motoring distraction to flaky wildflower enthusiasts.

Balsamroot is a communal species--it is a large, robust plant that, under ideal conditions, associates with thousands, perhaps millions, of its own kind. However, even with ideal soil and sun exposure, (e.g., Flowery Divide Ridge or parts of Nahahum Canyon) this “Sea of Gold” will not be witnessed every year, nor every other year. Other factors-- including amount of bloom the preceding year, quality and severity of the winter, amount and timing of autumn rains, and the spring rains prior to bloom--determine how many flower heads will be produced.

In a typical Balsamroot bloom year, many or most plants will be “resting” and a full-sized plant may produce less than ten flower heads. In a big year, however, the same plant may produce around a hundred flower heads.

Balsamroot is widely distributed in the sagebrush steppe and, depending on soil and other factors, extends into the Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir zones up to about 4000 feet. At higher elevations, it rarely occurs in the pure, dominant stands we see in the canyons above the Wenatchee Valley.

See this pdf version of the story with many more photos Article-Balsamroot.pdf