Bitterroot and an Indian Legend

By Dave Hanks

Not many flowers have a full mountain range and a big beautiful valley named for them. But, this is a special flower. It is the Bitterroot. It is also Montana’s state flower. There is an Indian legend about how it came to be. Once upon a time an Indian mother was crying because her children were starving. The sun, feeling sorry for her, shone on her tears and changed them into beautiful purplish/pink flowers. This flower had great utility, as well as beauty. Its big, starchy root could be eaten, and the mother’s children no longer needed to go hungry. The Lemhi Shoshone tribe also believed that the small, red core, in the upper taproot, had special powers – notably to be able to stop bear attacks.

As the name suggests, the Bitterroot’s root is bitter. But, the bitterness disappears when cooked. The starch can be dried and preserved for months. Indians mixed it with either berries or meat or both - thus enhancing all the ingredients in the mix and making a nourishing food that could be stored for long periods. They also mixed it with the inner bark of Ponderosa Pine. Large scars still remain on some of these trees. Bitterroot was a staple food for many western Indian tribes. It was also used for trade with other Indians.

This plant grows in low, mountainous, sagebrush regions. It is a perennial that grows close to the ground to escape the harmful effects of wind. It has a composite inflorescence. (This means many individual, petal-like flowers around a flattened, broad receptacle.) The effect makes it look like a single flower. The leaves, which rodents love, tend to wilt and die before the plant blooms. Therefore, it appears as a leafless flower.

Meriwether Lewis was not a botanist, but he was to collect specimens of any new plants that he found. His first experience with this plant was when they first crossed the continental divide. They frightened some Shoshone Indians, who ran away leaving some baskets of dried Bitterroots. Lewis found the whole plant in Montana on the return trip. The plant was named for him.

We have observed this plant on the high mountain trail of the National Bison Range and at Craters of the Moon. It is one of Carolyn’s favorite flowers.

(Lewisia rediviva)