Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Biscuits and Balsam, edible roots of the eastside

Biscuitroot flowering in the Blue Mountains
Yellow Fritillaria
While returning from Denver via the Blue Mountains, some Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) caught my eye so Katrina and I stopped to explore the flora around the John Day River in Eastern Oregon.  The Balsamroot were just starting to leaf out in a rocky seep with several other interesting plants.  Blue Mountain Onion (Allium fibrillum) was about to flower, two species of Biscuitroot (Lomatium triternatum and L. donnellii) were just starting to flower, and Yellow Fritillaria (Fritillaria pudica) were already in bloom.  All of these have edible roots, and I tried three of them.
Blue Mountain Onion

Using my trusty digging stick, I pried a few Balsamroots from the earth to experiment with.  While at the Ethnobiology Conference I had a conversation with Kimberly Chambers about my attempt last fall to eat the fibrous roots of Balsamroot.  Kim studied Balsamroot for her Master’s Degree and recommended harvesting smaller roots, earlier in the season.  The roots in front of me fit the bill since they were just leafing out and were no more than ½ inch in diameter.  I steamed them for half an hour and found that they were tender enough to chew and swallow.  They have a very resinous flavor, but I imagine that prolonged cooking (as was traditional) would leach out some of the resin and further soften the roots.

Nineleaf Biscuitroot just starting to flower
The Biscuitroots were even more exciting because I had never tasted them before.  I unearthed a few specimens of both Nineleaf Biscuitroot (Lomatium triternatum) and what I believe to be Donnellii’s Biscuitroot (L. donnellii).  Nineleaf Biscuitroot has relatively long, thin leaf segments and a long taproot that frequently has a tuberous enlargement several inches below the soil surface.  The roots that I dug up ranged from about 5-8 inches long, but the rocky nature of the soil made it difficult to get the entire root, and I always left an undermined length of root behind in the soil (perhaps part of the plants evolutionary adaption to being edible?). 

Nineleaf Biscuitroot (Lomatium triternatum) roots
Nineleaf Biscuitroots were eaten by the Atsugewi (in northeastern California), Blackfoot (in central Montana) and other Native Americans living in Montana (See Daniel Morman’s “Native American Ethnobotany").  Lewis and Clark also noted that the Native Americans living on the Clearwater River (in Idaho) ate Nineleaf Biscuitroot.  The flowers and leaves were also dried as a food and spice.  I steamed my specimens for half and hour and peeled off tough skins to reveal the tan starch.  After a series of cautious tastes, I consumed the root and found them to have the dry starchy texture of an overcooked potato with a few fibrous strings and a mildly bitter flavor.

Possibly Donnelli's Biscuitroot
What I am calling Donnelli’s Biscuitroots were smaller at about 4 inches long and ¼-1/2 inch thick with a smaller tuberous growth near the bottom.  Because my identification was so uncertain, I planted a few in my garden so that I can observe their seed size and shape.  I cooked them in a similar manner and found that the flesh of the peeled root was white.  Donnelli’s Biscuitroots were less bitter than Nineleaf Biscuitroot, but they had a slightly peppery flavor.  There isn’t really any ethnobotanical information on their use, but this is perhaps due to their small size.  Eugene Hunn provides an excellent account of several Biscuitroot species in his book “Nchi’i-Wana, The Big River,” which is about the Native Americans living in and around the middle part of the Columbia River.  Hunn briefly discusses Donnellii’s Biscuitroot in his book, but he recently told me that incorrectly attributed his ethnographic account to that species.

I am very eager to continue experimenting and learning about the many wonderful root foods found east of the Cascades and I feel like I got off to a good start with Biscuitroot.

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