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Bitterroot Plant Trivia

Traditional story

This story has been credited to the Shoshone and Flathead. It may very well come from other tribes:

One day an elderly woman couldn't find food for her family and started crying. The sun sent a red bird to comfort her. The bird told her that every place her bitter tears fell, a root -- nourished by her love -- would grow. The root would be colored by the woman's white hair. The taste would flavored by her bitter tears. The flower would be tinted by the bird's red feathers...and she would always have food for her tribe.

State flower information

The Bitterroot is the Montana State Flower.

  • 1889: The Montana Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) began to advocate the concept of state-designated emblematic flowers. The group initially selected a little blue flower as the WCTU's official state flower for Montana.
  • 1893: The Bitterroot was displayed in large flower beds as part of the scientific floral exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair (or World's Columbian Exposition). Butte residents also used Bitterroot flower as a central image on a large silver shield for display at the Fair.
  • 1894: Mary Long Alderson of Bozeman, and the WCTU Program, headed the Montana state flower movement. She formed Montana's Floral Emblem Association. After a public vote, the Bitterroot was selected over the evening primrose (2nd place) and the wild rose (3rd place). White clematis, prickly pear cactus, goldenrod and mariposa lily were also considered.
  • 1895: The Bitterroot was officially made the Montana State Flower.

Botanical information

The more common Portulaca
A small plant hides large roots
Bitterroot botanical drawing

The Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) is a member of the Portulacaceae family. Of Portulacaceae, the Portulaca -- also known as the "moss rose" -- is the most commonly grown member of this plant family.

The Bitterroot is a low-growing perennial with a fleshy taproot and a simple or branched base. The fleshiness of the Bitterroot reflects the water storing adaptation which parallels that of cacti and other "desert" succulents. The startchy roots can survive extreme dehydration. These stored carbohydrates are used to initiate growth.

The Bitterroots' ability to come back from what appears to be dried death is what gives rise to the species name, rediviva. From Latin, the word rediviva literally translates to "brought back to life."

Bitterroots typically grow in open woodlands, sagebrush shrublands, gravel river bars, or gardens.

The Bitterroot is found throughout the Rocky Mountain area, but it is especially abundant in western Montana.

  • The plant has succulent, linear leaves that form a rosette, but wither or disappear at flowering time.
  • A single flower appears on each leafless stem.
  • Flowers range in color from whitish to deep pink or rose during May and June.
  • Flower petals (usually about 15) are oblong in shape and can have round or pointed tips.
  • In the wild, flower diameter is approximately two inches. Garden grown Bitterroot flowers can be up to four inches in diameter.
  • Flowers close at night and repoen with morning sun.
  • Flowers remain open for two to three days, typically pollinated by bees.
  • Blooms are unmistakeable because they stick out as bright spots of color on dry, rocky soil.

Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class : Magnoliopsida
Order: Caryophyllales
Family: Portulacaceae
Genus : Lewisia Pursh
Species : rediviva

Large herbivores don't tend to forage for the Bitterroot because of its small size, but rodents eat the leaves and seeds.

Native American information

Native Americans called Bitterroot plant "spetlum" or "spetlem," which means bitter. (French trappers called the plant "racème amer" which means bitter root.)

Montana's Indians used the Bitterroot as an important part of their diet. The plant was also used for medicinal purposes (see below). Many different Indian tribes collected the Bitterroot. The Bitterroot was considered a luxury food or delicacy, as opposed to a staple. A sackful of Bitterroots was very valuable, possibly equal to the price of a horse.

The Flathead and neighboring tribes timed their spring migrations with the blooming of the Bitterroot. May was known as "Bitterroot month." As the plant ages, the root becomes woody, so harvesting young plants was important. The roots also have maximal startch content before flowering.

The Lemhi Shoshone believed the small red core found in the upper taproot had special powers, notably being able to stop a bear attack.

Lewis & Clark information

Bitterroot specimen from Meriwether Lewis.
Meriwether Lewis' Bitterroot specimen

In 1805, as the Lewis & Clark party entered the Continental Divide area on the Montana/Idaho border, several advance scouts came upon some Shoshone. Spooked by the scouts, the Shoshone fled, leaving behind a bag of collected bitterroots. While Lewis found the Bitterroot to be indeed bitter, he saw how the Indians valued it.

Returning from the Pacific in 1806, Lewis collected a Bitterroot plant at Traveler's Rest, Montana. The Bitterroot was one of 134 specimens presented to President Jefferson as part of a collection of "uncommon" plants the expedition had encountered.

Once home, Frederick Pursh, a noted scientist, analyzed and identified these 134 plants. Pursh gave the plant its scientific name, Lewisia rediviva, commemorating Meriwether Lewis’s role in "discovering" the plant and describing the plant’s apparent ability to return from the dead. (Lewis' Bitterroot specimen had been without soil and water for several years, but began to grow again upon planting.)

Food information

Eaten raw, the nutritious Bitterroot root can vary from slightly bitter to so bitter you can't eat it. The starch of the Bitterroot is very hard to digest, which may account for the fact that even Indians ate small portions of the root, usually mixed with other ingredients. There is also mention of raw Bitterroot causing "great personal discomfort due to swelling."

  • Cooking the root removes most or all of the bitterness and improves the flavor.
  • Berries or meat are often cooked with the root.
  • Roots are prepared by removing the bark (which slips off easily in the spring), then boiling, steaming or pit-roasting.
  • Upon cooking, roots swell to about six times their size.
  • The root should be boiled to a jelly-like consistency which frequently turns a pink color.
  • The freshly boiled roots are eaten then, or later after being dried.

Roots can also be dried, ground into a powder and used as a thickener for soups, porridge, mush, etc. The pulverized root can be mixed with wild game fat and moss to make patties.

Bitterness of the root also decreases after one or two year storage.

Medicinal information

Medical Disclaimer: is not an expert on the medicinal uses of plants. Much of the information has been taken from other sources. You should talk to a medical professional before using any plant for health purposes. can not take any responsibility for any effects from the use of plants.

  • An infusion of the root has been used to increase the milk flow in nursing mothers, to relieve heart pain and the pain of pleurisy and also as a blood purifier.
  • The root has been eaten raw to counteract the effects of poison ivy rash and as a treatment for diabetes.
  • The pounded dry root has been chewed in the treatment of sore throats.
  • A poultice of the raw roots has been applied to sores.

Moerman. D. Native American Ethnobotany Timber Press. Oregon. 1998 ISBN 0-88192-453-9


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