Plant of the Week
Nineleaf Biscuitroot (Lomatium triternatum)
By Edna Rey-Vizgirdas, Forest Botanist, Boise National Forest
More than 70 species of Lomatium, better known as biscuitroot or desert parsley, are distributed throughout the western United States and Canada. Members of the carrot family (Apiaceae), biscuitroot flowers attract numerous pollinators including bees, butterflies, and insects.
Four varieties of nineleaf biscuitroot, Lomatium triternatum, are found from California to Washington and east to Montana and Wyoming. Meriwether Lewis originally collected nineleaf biscuitroot on May 6, 1806, near the Clearwater River in Idaho. On that date, Lewis lamented, “It was now difficult to procure anything to eat that our chief dependence was on the horse that we received yesterday for medicine; but to our great disappointment, he broke the rope by which he was confined, made his escape, and left us supperless in the rain”. On the journey through the Pacific Northwest, Lewis collected four more biscuitroot species (Lomatium cous, dissectum, grayi, and nudicaule).
The name “biscuitroot” gives us a clue that the plants have starchy, edible taproots. Biscuitroots provided an important source of food and medicine to Native American tribes. The roots were cooked or dried and ground into flour, which could be shaped into cakes and stored for later use. Nineleaf biscuitroot flowers and leaves were used to flavor meats and stews by the Okanagan-Colville. Plants were used as food by the Yakama, and spring roots were eaten by tribes in Montana.
A hardy perennial, nineleaf biscuitroot’s bright yellow flowers bloom from April through July. Although plants are less than 3 ft tall, the showy flowers make them stand out in foothills, sagebrush, and open woodland habitats. Plants produce one or more leafless flower stalks topped by a tight flower cluster that eventually spreads out like the spokes of a wheel or umbrella ribs. The term for this type of inflorescence, known as an “umbel”, is how the Carrot family got its earlier name “Umbelliferae”.
Numerous narrow leaves emerge from the lower part of the plant. Each leaf is generally divided into three leaflets that are subdivided into three linear segments. “Triternatum” means three times ternate, i.e., leaves are divided in 3 segments which are also divided into threes; hence the name “nineleaf biscuitroot”.
When you encounter these eye-catching plants on your next journey through our remarkable public lands in the West, you won’t be disappointed.