Harvesting Edible Roots in the Inland NW(March-April):

Potholes Primitive
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Potholes Primitive
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Joined: March 5th, 2005, 12:45 pm

May 6th, 2006, 2:53 am #1

Last weekend I had the opportunity to spend some time primitive camping in the local badlands here in Eastern Washington. It being mid-March, there was still snow on the ground, the creek was muddy and swollen, and pools of water had collected in low spots and potholes where the ground was too frozen to absorb it. But Spring was in the air, and after 2 days of subsisting on carefully rationed bagels, the sun finally managed to thaw out a few inches of topsoil. And sprouting out of the earth were many of my favorite plant friends. I made a small digging stick from a syringa branch. It was time for a first roots feast.

The First Peoples of the Plateau dug their roots in the Spring. By early summer the ground is sun-baked, dry, and rock solid; and by the end of summer, most of the above ground plant parts have dried and blown away. Also, many roots are more tender and easier to peel in the springtime. As a source of calories, roots were critical to the Natives of the region. They were more important than greens, berries, nuts, game animals, and perhaps even salmon. Spring roots were dug intensively by traveling parties over the brief season and, after being sun-dried, were stored away for the winter months in large quantities. (See Eugene S. Hunns great book Nchi-Wana: The Big River)

The first plant I came across was Lomatium canbyi. This plant goes by many names, both European and Indian, including: Canbys Lomatium, Biscuitroot, Desert Parsley, Lamush, Shulkul, Luksh, Tsuka-lo-tsa, and "White Camas" (though the plant is actually not related to the Camassia species). Lomatium canbyi was a principal food of the Natives. According to one Sinkiuse elder, it ranked second in importance only to salmon. It is similar to Lomatium cous, the widely known Cous root that grows further to the South.

Lomatium canbyi in full bloom

At this time of year, only a few dark glossy leaves and perhaps a white umbell flower are visible. Later, the plants will be more bushy and have more flower stems. By June these plant with have utterly disappeared, storing their energy within their bulbous roots for next year. Lomatium canbyi grows sporadicly throughout the schrub-steppe, but is most abundant in rocky soils called lithosols, formed by deteriorating basalt. Lithosols are generaly void of shrubs and occupy slopes, ridge tops, and mesas. I search out patches where the gravel is pea-sized or smaller; here the roots grow large and shallow, and the soil is easily loosened. In deep dirt, the roots may be large but hard to dig. Conversely, roots in larger rocks are stunted, hard to dig, and easy to damage.

Preparing to dig the root

Digging roots with a simple digging stick can be a frustrating experience. One may hack furiously for minutes at the ground only to loose a root or to smash it accidentally. The goal is to harvest more calories than you expend. As I mentioned before, soil type is a huge factor. Technique is also crucial. I have not yet seen a Native root digger in action, but I through trail and error I have evolved a very effective technique that doesnt leave me sweating and cursing. First of all, Larry Olsens wisdom: 1) Dont dig down to the root, make the root come to you. 2) Dont try to lever the root out, the correct motion is somewhere between a lift and a pry; this takes a little more muscle than levering. With that in mind, this is my technique:
1) Pick a spot clear of rocks a 3-5 inches away from the plant to insert your dig-stick. If you are too close to the plant, you are likely to smash the root or break to fragile stem that connects the leaves to the bulb.

2) In this spot, thrust your digging straight down as deep as it will go with multiple lunges of the upper body. The Indians used a long digging stick with a crosspiece handle; from a standing position, they locked their elbows and pushed down using their body weight to drive the stick downward. But in survival type scenarios, I use a simpler stick which is shorter and has no added handle piece. It is pointy on one end and rounded on the other. To use this stick I kneel on the ground. My right hand is over the butt end and anchored into my chest. My left hand is lower on the stick and acts as a fulcrum. This allows me to thrust the stick deep into the ground by bearing down on it with my weight, rather than muscling it in with my arms. If you are using your arms, you are wasting calories, thats why the Indians locked their elbows.

Brian demostrating the short digging stick, using his body wieght

Brian demonstrating a traditional digging stick with a handle

3) Odds are that your stick still isnt deep enough to loosen the root. Dont lever the point toward the plant or you could smash the root. Maintaining weight on the stick, lever it so the underground point moves out to one side of the plant. Thrust again. Then lever the stick so that the underground point moves out to the other side of the plant. Thrust again. Return the stick to the first angle, thrust, again to the second angle, thrust, and back and forth. It is a pattern of alternating wiggles and thrusts. All the while your stick should be getting deeper. Also, the earth around the plant will be starting to loosen. 10 inches deep is about good enough for Lomatium canbyi. Lomatium marcocarpum tends to be deeper. Bitterroot (Lewisa rediviva) is much shallower.

4) Once at depth we listen to Larry: turning the digging stick into the plant, we pry and pull upward in hopes of loosening the root. If you see the top of the plant rise with the soil you know you have it. I the soil rises and the plant pulls under the soil than you are not deep enough. Once the soil is loosened I fish the root out with my hand. Success!

5) Root digging leaves ugly holes everywhere. It is a very high impact activity and should not be practiced on strained or fragmented habitats. Habitats that see heavy use by cattle or people are likely to be strained. Dont strip mine the place. Always leave plenty of plants. A good rule of thumb is to find clusters of three plants and dig only the biggest one from each cluster. (Lomatiums with more flowers tend to have larger roots). Use your toe to replace the displaced soil as you go. This creates beds of loose soil where new roots can grow large. If you are careful and responsible like the First Peoples, your digging will be sustainable and may even increase the root yield of the ground.

From the top: 1. Serviceberry digger/thrower tapered on thick end (notice how the point is worked only on one side for strength, like a bow) 2. crude Syringa digger utilizing a natural taper 3. The simplest of digging sticks 4. A traditional greasewood digger with antler handle

Never leave home without a digging stick

Using this technique, I was able to dig a stomach-full of roots in under an hour. Lomatium canbyi roots are relatively high calorie (about 110 calories per 100 grams) at least among roots, and are quiet filling. The arid shrub-steppe doesnt provide many food opportunities as good as that. The Lomatium genus includes some species with immuno-stimulant constituents and may be a significant source of vitamin C. Eating a stomach-full of raw roots takes a stretch of the comfort-zone. Oils within the starchy root bestow a flavor somewhat like a combination of parsley, kerosene, and toothpaste. But peeling and cooking vastly improves the flavor (more on that later). I dug more roots than I felt like eating and ended up bringing some home for documented experimenting.

An exeptionaly large root in comparison to a golf ball

I was also fortunate enough to stumble across some young Bitterroot (Lewisa Rediviva) growth in similar lithosolic soil. The beautiful pink flowers have yet to arrive, but the plants can be identified by their perfect round rosettes of fleshy green leaves. The Natives dug these before they flowered, when the stringy roots are easiest to peel. I also dug some, but I think a little too early, because the roots were still somewhat difficult to peel. It is important that the roots be ready to peel, because the red skin is what imparts the bitter flavor to the roots. There is also a small red body or "heart" inside the top of larger roots that is bitter and should be removed. Bitterroot is an entirely different story to dig. In the right soil, one can effortlessly pry them from the ground in a single motion. The flip-side is that Bitterroot is lower calorie (about 90 calories per 100 grams) and harder to peel, wash, and prepare. I ate some of these and dug more to bring home with the others.

Harvested Bitterroot or a scene from science fiction?

I also came across edible Lomatium marcocarpum, with lighter colored leaves and flowers that rest on the ground. It is a large high calorie root like L. canbyi, but experience has taught me not to dig it, because the root is often very deep and difficult to extract. I also passed by Lomatium triternatum which has a wonderful flavor, but is very small. I only dig L. triternatum where it grows in abundance on steep eroding slopes as it is a cinch to extract handfuls this way. I found only two Hookers Balsamroot plants (Balsamhoriza hookeri) whose tender springtime roots are deliciously sweet when cooked, so I did not did them. More will emerge.

Lomatium marcocarpum on tule mat

Lomatium triternatum

So when I got home with all these roots I decided to cook them up real nice. Lomatium canbyi roots, both fresh and dried, were traditionally boiled before eating. Boiling is a good choice because it rids the roots of their foul tasting oil (which floats to the top) and makes the roots sweet and pleasant tasting, like yams.

Washed Lomatium canbyi roots

After peeling

I was unable to rid the Bitterroot of all its red skin but I boiled a few of these roots with the others for variety. I half remember reading somewhere that Bitterroot greens are also edible, but dont take my word for it.

Half peeled Bitterroot

Roots pulled apart for texture

Both roots boil in my post-Stone Age kitchen

A meal for two, but sadly no cavewoman company

The Natives might have flavored boiled roots with fish oil or berries. I didn't have any fish oil, but butter did the trick nicely. The result was downright yummy!

Me, choking down my wonderfull cooking and getting in touch with my roots. It realy tastes pretty good!


Hello again everybody. Ive had these other pictures (of the same type of thing) for about a week now and thought I could do a sequel write-up with them. For the benefit of some interested folks I met at the Glass Buttes, I thought Id tack it on to my old thread to keep it from sinking to the bottom.

So I went on another trip, this time just to dig roots. My first stop was the Beezly Hills area, West of Ephrata in Washington. Ephrata and the surrounding hills were once a hub for Sinkiuse Indian activity during root season. This was the best place within their territory to dig the staple food Lomatium canbyi (covered earlier). A drizzle had left the soil damp and the wind was mild, and the grass was greening between the low shrubs, so it was a perfect day for gathering. I could instantly see why this place was so revered by the Sinkiuse people. Even though cattle had trampled over much of the place, there was an abundance of the root like I have never seen.

A closeup of lithosolic soil, the ideal habitat of Lomatium canbyi and other important food roots

Right away I discovered a root that beat my old size record (golf ball sized). This one was a big as an apple!


I wanted to do a timed study and see how my productivity measured up the productivity of the Native diggers in Eugene Hunns book. So I dug intensively for 15 minutes, durring which time my digging stick broke (I had to pause my study and resume after modifying my long handled stick to a short handle-less one). In those 15 minutes I gathered a little under 2 cups of roots, about 8 cups/hour.

How fast can you forage a meal?

It turns out that I dig roughly 3 times slower than the natives. But I will keep practicing. After my study I hiked around digging selectively, working my way to the top of the ridge for a view.

The total harvest for the outing

In some of the lower areas I find Allium acuminatum, the edible and tasty Tapertip Onion. The roots are small but often grouped closely. It is my belief that including these onions in a foraged diet reduces my likelihood of attracting ticks and other nasty bugs. It is a known insect repellent when used externally. Onions contain the complex carbohydrate inulin, which becomes usable by the body only after cooking. Many Native groups achieved this by "pit-cooking" such roots in fire heated pits that were left covered for long periods of time, breaking the inulin down into simpler sugars. This is why cooked onions are so sweet.

Onions abound in low spots where water collects in the spring. This spot will be stone dry by summer, but still full of onions.

A closeup of young Allium acuminatum

But wait a minute! Onions and other edible members of the lily family bare a striking resemblance to fatal Death Camas, especially before both plants flower as in this case . So dont be so quick to dig that onion unless you can tell the difference between it and this plant.

Can you tell the difference between edible members of the Lily family and their deadly cousin Zigandenus paniculatus (a species of Death Camas)?

Now, edible onions will always smell like onions, while death camas does not. But visual clues are also key to making the final decision to ingest. Visually, I see several subtle differences between the two young plants. I can confidently identify them both, but I still prefer to dig the onions after they flower.

Other edible plants may also resemble Death Camas. I find a few solitary Sagebrush Mariposa Lilies Calochortus macrocarpus in the deeper soil around the Sagebrush. They has a distinctive single (rarely double) leaf like this when they are young. In my opinion, they rank among the best tasting wild roots, very sweet, but I usually only dig them in the sand dunes because they are so deep and fragile. I know them as Indian Lilies, and they are an inulin containing root much like Camas.

Calochortus marcocarpus

Another edible Allium

Pretty Yelowbells Fritillaria pudica were already flowering. The roots of these were eaten aboriginaly, but I cant imagine them being very important because they are so small and flavorless. The bulbs have layered protuberances that make it difficult to clean of dirt. I have never found them growing in abundance.

Fritillaria pudica

The oddly shaped root

Climbing higher into rockier habitat, Balsamroots become more abundant. There are two species in the area: Balsamorhiza careyana (Careys Balsamroot) with dark green leaves, Balsamorhiza hookeri (Hookers Balsamroot) with yarrow-like leaves, and Balsamorhiza saggittata (Arrowleaf Balsamroot) with dusty green leaves. These three can be a hassle to sort out because they all hybridize, often creating offspring that are truly neither species. Arrowleaf Balsamroot is the one most often mentioned in survival books as edible. But a few obscure ethnobotanical texts cite the use of both of the other species as edible. I eat them all with no ill effects, but its up to you whether or not you trust the ethnographers on this one. The preparation of Balsamroots has mystified many survivalists for some time. If one was to track down the large yellow flowers of a large plant and unearth the root, it would be found that the root is fairly large (often baseball sized) but so fibrous as to be impossible to eat, even after much cooking. The Natives understood two critical harvesting concepts: first, that the roots should be dug as early as possible in the spring, often preceding the signature yellow flowers, and second, that one should dig only little plants with roots the size of small carrots. Small roots dug early are much softer and more palatable. By the time Summer rolls around, forget about harvesting Balsamroot. They are pitchy and faintly sweet when raw, but are another inulin plant, so ought to be cooked to improve flavor and digestibility. Also the strong tasting stems can be eaten as "celery", and the seeds were sometimes gathered for food by Natives.

Young Carey's Balsamroot sprouts from last year's dead growth

Choosing the smaller roots for eating

To remove the root's hard outer shell, one must first crack the shell by smashing it along the root's entire length. Here, this achieved by setting the root on a rock and tapping it with the blunt end of a digging stick.

Once the outer shell has been smashed and split, it should peel easily away.

Still in the rocks, I come across several edible Lomatium species, none are as quite as economical as L. canbyi, but several were utilized by Native groups. There are a plethora of Lomatium species, most are safe to eat. Debatably, the only local Lomatium that isnt edible is Lomatium dissectum. L. dissectum is very oily and foul smelling and can be used to stupefy fish. But then again, it is a widely recognized medicine and some ethnographers cite the use of at least some of its parts as food. Perhaps one other exception: South of me, in the area of the Yakima Reservation, grows L. columbianum, which according to the Natives there is poisonous (to cite Hunn). If a Lomatium tastes awful, then spit it out, but I advise careful identification of the Umbell family in general.

A member of the Lomatium genus I sometimes eat but do not know the name of

Edible Lomatium marcocarpum

Microseris troximoides or False Dandelion is one of those little known edible roots used by the aboriginals. Ive eaten its small taproot and dont have much to say about its taste. I dont know if it was cooked but speculate it was. It has a short season.

Microseris troximoides is also know as Wavy Leafed Microseris, note the crinkled leaf margins.

I knew my altitude had increased when I reach the first clump of Hedgehog Cactuses Pediocactus Simpsonii (see post from way earlier). This is another species that I went out on a limb in eating by trusting an obscure ethnographer. Apparently it was used as a starvation food in the winter time. I have read no details about its preparation, but discovered that I can pry them up with a stick and torch all of the spines off by touching them to flame. The resulting sticky glob of edibility tastes indeed like a starvation food, but is filling. These cacti are rare on this side of the Columbia, so I take care not to bother them.

Hedgehog Cactuses love company, seen here flanked by Yellowbells

Roots aren't the only aboriginal resource to be found in the Beezly Hills. Here also is petrified wood and other silicates used by the Natives as flintknapping matierial. This piece is pretty but too weathersplit for use.

At the very top of the ridge, my sight stretched for miles. The lake near my home was now a tiny ribbon of blue. I stood on soil that endured the great stress of the passing seasons. Hard freezes and scorching days pulverized the rock to pebbles. Driving rain and roaring wind left the dirt full of cracks. But here on the ridgetop dwelt plants that thrived in these adverse conditions. Between the gnarled forms of Rigid Sagebrush sprouted young Bitterroot Lewisia rediviva plants (preparation previously discussed).

Bitterroot growing on a lithosolic ridgetop, as it often does
And so I reveled in my lofty view, a sack full of wild nourishment dangling at my side. It was food at its ideal; food that fit the land, food that fit the past. It was food fit for him that would wander the hills.


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Joined: March 28th, 2012, 7:49 am

March 28th, 2012, 7:49 am #2

Not sure if you still check replies to this post as it so old, but I am trying identify a root my mother and I dug up once in our garden in West Richland, Washington.  It was very rubbery and disgusting and looked a bit like the peeled bitterroot pictures you posted.  

Later, when I was a guest at someone's house at Priest Rapids the woman had a pot of these roots cooking on her stove.  She was Wamnapum Indian and told me that they were their traditional food and that they dried them and cooked them like spaghetti.  She invited us to their root festival, but I never made it.  Is this bitterroot?  I looked at photos of Camas, but that did not look right.  

I am Navajo Indian and my mother and I were planting our own traditional corn seeds that our family had sent us from the our homeland. After I realized that we had been pulling out and throwing out another Indian people's food to plant our own I felt pretty embarrassed at my own ignorance.  Do you think it was bitterroot?