We have four species of lousewort (Pedicularis) growing around our home here in the Colville Delta. With the different species we get a blooming period from early June through late August, and even a few stragglers into September if it is a warm summer. The habitat varies from dry polygon ridges to wet sedge meadows; all lousewort are edible though some have a tap root too small to be of much interest.
The genus name, Pedicularis, means little louse. It was once thought that animals feeding on this plant would become infected with these pests. Wort comes from the old English word meaning flower, giving us lousewort.
The Wooly Lousewort (P. Kanei subsp. Kanei) is the first to appear in the spring, often starting to grow in early June when much of the ground is still covered with snow. It isn’t uncommon to find the first ones of the season blooming in a small patch of tundra surrounded by snow, a bit of pink in a world of white. To protect itself from the freezing temperatures and cold winds it has developed a covering of dense wool, and before it starts to bloom, it looks so different it could be mistaken for a different plant. This plant also has the largest tap root of the four and it is good to eat cooked or raw, a good source of starch, and the taste is similar to that of a sweet potato. It grows 15-20cm/6-8 inches tall from a thick yellow taproot with rose colored corolla.
Three views of the Woolly in different stages from early inflorescence white and woolly and as a mature flower.
The next two louseworts to bloom are the Capitate (P. capitata) and the Purple lousewort (P. sudetica). The Capitate Lousewort is yellow and prefers dryer ground and can grow in large patches covering several meters in diameter. The stem is single, growing from a thin rhizome, and the unbranched stem can have up to four flower heads, although one or two are more common. The corolla is yellowish or at times the upper lip can become rose-colored with age. Average height is around 15cm/6 inches.
The photo on the left shows the rose coloring that the older flowers can acquire, while on the right is one that is all yellow.
The Purple Lousewort (P. sudetica subsp. albolabiata) likes moist to wet tundra and grows either as a single flowering stem, or in clumps of ten or more flowering stalks from stout rootstock. These two plants tend to have a long growing season and overlap the start of the flowering of the fourth species that grows here. The petals are multicolored, having a pink corolla with a purple apex that has a white lip. This species is also referred to as the Sudeten Lousewort.
A nice Purple Lousewort cluster and a close up of the flowering head.
The Whorled Lousewort (P. verticillata) has the most delicate blossoms of the four and you can have a single flowering stalk or many growing in a tight group from a branching taproot. They like moist meadows and river banks and grow up to 7 inches or 18cm. Petals are purple with a pink base.
A nice group of Whorled Louseworts on the left with a close up of the flower on the right.
All of our louseworts have eatable tap roots, but other than the Woolly, most are too small to make it worthwhile to collect. Speaking of collecting, some species of voles collect lousewort tap roots and store them in small caches for the winter. The vole caches I have found are usually about a cup in quantity. Since these are such a good food source, the grizzly bear love to search out these vole treasures and feast on them. I watched one bear work several willow thickets in the river bed, and after a couple hours had consumed a large quantity of stored roots. I’m sure the voles weren’t too happy about this, but at least they didn’t get eaten on this day.