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'Field Notes:' All About The Bitterroot, Montana's State Flower

Bitterroot flowers Along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, Lolo, MT.
U.S. Forest Service (PD)
Bitterroot flowers Along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, Lolo, MT.

Enter the high country of Montana in late May or early June and you may see a striking pale pink flower. Few plants can rival the lovely bloom of the bitterroot, a low-growing perennial herb with a blossom that ranges from deep rose to almost white.

The bitterroot grows on the dry slopes of the Rockies, ranging from southern British Columbia and Alberta to the high-altitude deserts of New Mexico and Arizona.

Dormant for nearly ten months of the year, the bitterroot flowers in May or June and blooms only briefly. The plant uses stored energy from nighttime moisture to open its flowers in the morning. The flowers close during the sunny afternoons and evenings to preserve their energy.

Each brilliant blossom contains 60 to 70 tiny seeds, which are spread when the bloom dries and detaches from the plant and the wind blows the flowers across the plains.

An enduring part of the culture and landscape of this region, the bitterroot was voted the Montana state flower in 1894. Anyone could vote, no matter age or gender. When the polls closed, 5,857 ballots were in. More than 32 separate flowers received votes. But the bitterroot was the clear winner with 3,621 votes, and has been our state flower ever since.

Lewis And Clark are often credited with the discovery of the plant. In fact, its scientific name is Lewisia rediviva. But long before Lewis and Clark came along, the bitterroot was a staple in trade and cooking for several indigenous tribes, namely the Salish people who lived in the bitterroot's habitat. A sack full of the dried herb commanded a substantial price in trade. Documents show that a sack of the root could be traded for a horse.

Salish women collected the root before the flowers of the plants bloomed, because that's when most of the plant's nutrients are still present in the root. Women knew it was ready to gather when the skin peeled clean and easily off the pure white root.

Salish elders recall their family's journeys from the reservation in Arlee down to the Missoula Valley in the early 20th century, a time and place where bitterroots used to bloom generously. The trip from Arlee to Missoula by horse-drawn wagon took a full day, and travellers camped in teepees in the Missoula Valley near to what is now ShopKo. The prime season for harvesting only lasted about two weeks, so there was a large boom of hundreds of people who harvested roots growing on the valley floor and all the way up Mount Sentinel every spring, until expanded development in the Missoula Valley destroyed the bitterroots and their habitat.

The species name rediviva translates to "brought back to life" in Latin. In fact, bitterroots can live for more than a year without water. For this reason, the bitterroot has also been called the "resurrection flower."

An old Salish story tells how the bitterroot came to be. One winter, there was no game to eat toward the end of the season, so an old grandmother cried for her starving people. The woman went up on a hill to ask the creator for mercy and protection, grieving over the plight of her people. Her tears ran down her silver hair and the sun turned her tears into the bitterroot flower, whose nutritious root provided the starving people with food. So when the bitterroots burst into bloom every spring, we can admire the silvery sheen of the puddles, and remember the old grandmother's hair and her prayer for her people.

"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.

(Broadcast: "Field Notes," 6/03/18 and 6/8/18. Listen weekly on the radio, Sundays at 12:55 p.m., Tuesdays at 4:54 p.m., or Fridays at 4:54 p.m.,  or via podcast.)

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