Balsamroot can usually be found growing in stands along sere hillsides or roadbanks, but solitary plants are occasionally seen punctuating otherwise drab expanses of dry meadowlands. A single large specimen might produce several dozen bright yellow flowers in late spring; later in the year the broad, arrowhead-shaped leaves distinguish these plants. Balsamroot closely resembles – and sometimes mingles with – Mules-Ears (Wyethia spp.), but the flowering stems of Mules-Ears typically bear leaves, while those of Balsamroot do not. And none of the members of Wyethia possess the robust, deep (up to three meters), resinous root that gives Balsamroot its name and many of its medicinal characteristics (though both the root and aerial parts of this plant have healing properties).
If you have a bent for chemistry, you might be interested in some of the compounds that are believed to confer Balsamroot’s salutary powers. According to Michael Moore, author of Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, both the stems and roots of Balsamroot contain an array of flavonoids, including 7-methyl-ether and 6-hydroxykaempferol, inulin, glycans, resins and terebinthine principles (mainly in the root), and caffeic acids similar to those found in Echinacea.
Balsamroot flowers are browsed by deer and other wildlife, and nearly all parts of the plant have been consumed by various Native American tribes: the flower stems can be peeled and eaten, the seeds are nutritious and oil-rich, and the root can be steamed and eaten or dried and pounded into flour or used as a coffee substitute.
When taken internally, Balsamroot acts as a disinfectant and expectorant. Like Echinacea, it may also stimulate white blood cell activity. Topically, Balsamroot serves to disinfect, reduce inflammation, and enhance healing.
Powdered Balsamroot leaves can be applied to the skin and covered with hot towels to heal burns and wounds, soothe eczema, and ease the pain associated with bruises and contusions. In a pinch, you can mash or chew the leaves, apply them to the injured area, and cover with another intact leaf. The powdered root makes a decent antifungal that can be applied as a poultice or salve to treat “ringworm,” jock itch, and athlete’s foot.
Balsamroot’s dried or fresh root can be used to produce a tincture which, when added to warm water, tea, or juice, helps soothe sore throats, loosen phlegm, and boost your immune system. And you can create a fairly decent cough medicine by adding 1 part of the root to 4 parts honey, bringing to a simmer, maintaining the heat for a couple of hours, and then straining into a jar. Label and store at room temperature; take a teaspoon or two every 2 to 4 hours as needed.
The next time you’re tooling through a dry Western canyon and your eye is drawn to a clump of bright, sunny flowers on a hillside, take comfort in knowing that Arrowleaf Balsamroot is there… for the lean times.