By: Marlene Affeld
Long before 1805 when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark “discovered” the delightfully scented and eye pleasing treasure that was to become the Montana state flower, Native American Indians were utilizing the roots of the bitterroot for food and in trade. Ancient tribal lore tells how the bitterroot came to be. The legend says that the sun heard a mother’s weeping lament because she could not find food to feed her children. The sun changed her tears into the bitterroot, ensuring that she would always have food for her babies.
Lewis and William Clark "discovered" the bitterroot in the western Montana valley that now bears its name. Lewisia Rediviva or Bitterroot is a beautiful whitish/pink colored perennial flower that thrives in loose gravel and rocky places with good drainage. The bitterroot is sometimes found in the dry soil of the sagebrush plains but seems to prefer higher elevations. When in flower, the low growing bitterroots appear to be leafless, however 1-2 inch thick fleshy leaves appear in early spring, just as the snow is melting. These succulent type leaves wither away by the time the flowers bloom in May and June.
Montana's Indians considered the bitterroot an important part of their diet. Tribes planned their spring migrations to coincide with the blooming of the bitterroot. Digging the fibrous roots, cleaning and drying were part of an annual ritual. The root of the bitterroot provided a lightweight and nourishing supplement to a fish and wild-game diet.
One ounce of dried root provided sufficient nourishment for a meal, but the plant was seldom consumed raw, as its bitter taste and unpalatable texture often caused stomach discomfort. Indian women boiled the root, chopped it and then mixed it with meat or berries. Pulverized and seasoned with animal fat, the cooked root could be formed into patties and carried on hunting expeditions or war parties. Bitterroot root was also a valued trading commodity with other tribes and a full saddle bag of the precious root could be traded for a horse or weapons.
One of the loveliest of wildflowers, firmly entrenched in Native American culture and named by the leaders of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the bitterroot is a most appropriate floral symbol of Montana - “The Last Best Place”.
Marlene Affeld has a passion for the environment and all things natural which inspires her to write informative and insightful articles to assist others in living a Green Lifestyle.