Friday, May 15, 2009

A good year for arrowleaf balsamroot in our yard: thoughts on plant slection for your prairie

It is a good year for arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) in our little front yard prairie. This year four of our plants are flowering- the most ever, and the ones that are flowering have many blooms. The arrowleaf balsamroot is the staple of spring and early summer on the hills, open Ponderosa pine forests, and prairies of Montana. This is such a common, large, long- lived and showy flower, that you would think it would be common in home gardens, but it is not for a couple of good reasons.

The arrowleaf balsamroot, is long-lived and has a huge taproot. The tap root may get to 4" in diameter and over eight feet deep! This taproot allows it to tolerate severe drought, harsh winters, fire and grazing (by cattle and game animals).
However, because of this taproot it is very difficult to transplant- not impossible, but it is really not worth trying (especially from plants in the wild). The good news, sort of (keep reading), is that it can be grown pretty well from seed, but you need patience if you want to see the big showy flowers. Typically around here it takes about 7 years for a seedling to flower. I have read that in some conditions it might be as few as 5, though.

This spring I was delighted to see that we have about a dozen or so volunteers (see picture below), so in about 2015, look for our yard to be awash in balsamroot.

Lupine species (including Lupinus argenteus, and L. sericeus ) share many of the same traits as balsamroot: long-lived, beautiful, common, showy, and nearly impossible to transplant. Again, they are very easy to grow from seed, but it, too, does not flower for 4 or 5 years. Also, our experience is that even though getting seeds started is easy, survivorship until flowering is low.

Lupines and balsamroot require your patience and planning. Both are great for your garden, but they might not be the best choice when starting your native plant garden (certainly don't try to transplant ones from the wild). On the other hand, maybe you should get started on these first. If you are even remotely thinking about a native prairie, go out and plant a balsamroot seed today. But make sure it is in the perfect spot, because you can't move it!


  1. I see a lot of this growing in the mountains and prairies around here too! I always liked it. I learned my lesson with the lupine though, once it is there, it is there!

  2. I am lucky enough to have this in my front yard. These grow all over here and bloom with the lupine. Now I know its name. Thank you.

  3. After many attempts, my husband has finally been rewarded with two tiny balsam plants in our front xeriscape garden. He's so excited.

  4. Hi Victoria,
    Congrats to you and Kim. The next 5-7 years will be full of excitment until they bloom! I am enjoying reading your blog- thanks for your comments here.

  5. I spent the morning trying to move some balsamroot plants from one side of our house to the other, only to see them wilt almost immediately. I won't waste the afternoon doing the same exercise, but I will wait until they go to seed and then move the seeds around. Sooo much easier.