Wild Roots on Wild About Utah

Feb 24, 2017

One thing I love about being a horticulturist is paying close attention and working with seasonal cycles, especially this time of year when it finally feel OK to slow down.  This is the time of year when plants put all their energy into reserve for the winter and I think this is really cool.  If you’ve never thought about it, or even if you have… imagine how vibrant the fresh, new, green leaves are in the spring, busting from the dormant branches of trees. 

Credit plants.usda.gov

Those first leaves get their start using some of the stored energy or sugary plant food from last year.  Have you ever heard the phrase “when the sap starts flowing?”  Plants are really smart.  With the right ingredients, light, warmth, water, & and carbon dioxide, the cellular machinery makes the sugars and plant food necessary to grow.  Then, at the end of the year after the plant gets done making a fruit or nut or seed, all the extra plant food in the leaves and stems migrates to the roots where it can stay viable all winter. 

That stored plant food is also nutritious for humans.  My good friend the ethnobotanist, Guy Banner, has been enticing me with knowledge about edible plants that are native in Utah.  I always remember “Biscuit root” because it sounds, delicious.  You can find biscuit root growing in almost any native plant communities and even in dry open rocky areas.  There are several species that are edible.  Biscuit roots are short leafy plants with yellow flowers arranged in an umbrella shape and a large tap root.   The roots can be eaten raw or cooked, or dried and ground into a flour.  Native Americans throughout the west also used biscuit root medicinally for a range of ailments. 

Utah also has several species of wild onions that can be harvested and eaten.  Wild onions have grassy leaves that die down and leave a small round ball of purplish flowers on top of a skinny stem.   You’ll find them in dry gravelly sites.  Two other plants with edible roots, which you may have heard of before, are the sego lily and cattails.  The sego lily is our state flower and cattails are a very common sight in riparian areas.  The bulb of sego lilies can be eaten, and the roots of cattails are so large, they come close to providing as much food as a potato.   This might not sound supremely appetizing, but knowing how much food there can be in the wild may offer some comfort when you’re miles from the city on your next outdoor adventure.