Desert Bitterroot Oasis

Bitterroot, Lewisii redviva

Bitterroot, Lewisii redviva

Oasis Moment

Oasis moments sometimes happen in the desert. While hiking to Chimney Rock near Prineville, Oregon, we came across a patch of bitterroot flowers. The small flowers burst forth from cracks in the sandy soil in shades of pink and white. The flowers are only about an inch and a half across. The plant is delicate yet hardy at the same time.

I had never seen so many blossoms in one place. Bitterroot has always been a plant that amazes me. It was hard for me to keep walking with our group when a part of me just wanted to crouch down to their level and marvel at their perfection.

What Meriwether Lewis wrote about bitterroot

Beneath the soil, a taproot gives this plant its name. Meriwether Lewis, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, first saw the bitterroot plant in Lemhi County, Montana on August  22, 1805. Lewis tasted the root and described it in his journal:

this the Indians with me informed were always boiled for use. I made the exprement, found that they became perfectly soft by boiling, but had a very bitter taste, which was naucious to my pallate, and I transfered them to the Indians who had eat them heartily.

Baskets & photo of digging stick, Warm Springs Museum

Baskets & photo of digging stick, Warm Springs Museum

Usage by Native Americans

Bitterroot can be found in much of western North America in drier areas with well-drained gravelly soils and several tribes made use of the plant. Shoshoni, Flathead, Nez Perce, Paiute, Kutenai, and other tribes used digging sticks to collect the roots in the spring. The roots were dried and were often mixed with berries and meat.

The roots were traded and bartered and were considered to be of great value. A bagful was worth as much as a horse. They were used as food but also had medicinal uses. Bitterroot was used for several ailments including heart problems and sore throats. They were also used  to treat wounds and to increase milk flow in nursing mothers.

President Thomas Jefferson had asked Lewis to collect plant specimens on their expedition. Bitterroot plants were collected on the return trip in June of 1806. The area in Montana where the plants were collected is now known as the Bitterroot Valley. Specimens were given to the botanist Frederick Pursh in Philadelphia. Pursh named the plant Lewsii redviva in honor of Lewis.

BitterrootGrayButte15May2016

Fun fact: The species name redviva means “reviving from a dry state.” The specimens presented to Pursh came back to life even though they had been dug up many months before.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lewis & Clark Critter Quiz

Bison at Yellowstone National Park, WY

Hmmm…a predominantly pink woodpecker named after a famous early American explorer and a wily relative of the crow named after his partner. That might make for an interesting bit of writing. I started to research the topic.

Little did I know there was controversy linked to the plants and animals “discovered” on the Lewis and Clark expedition. The expedition supposedly discovered 178 plants and 122+ animals previously unknown to science. Or did they?

Other sources say they “encountered” or “reported” certain wildlife and plants. Due to discussions as to the accuracy of previously published lists, one recent list is divided into two sections: Discovered (for the first time by European Americans) and Described. Some of the flora and fauna species had been discovered in other parts of North America (or the world) prior to the time of the expedition while others had been a part of native people’s life for many years.

I am lucky to have seen many of the wildlife species that Lewis and Clark discovered and described. Here is a quiz that includes pictures of wildlife encountered on the expedition.

Did the Lewis & Clark expedition Discover them or Describe them? The answers are at the end of the quiz.

Sandhill Crane at Malheur NWR, OR

1. Sandhill crane, Grus canadensis

Clark's Nutcracker at Mt. Bachelor, OR

2. Clark’s nutcracker, Nucifraga columbiana

Bison in Yellowstone National Park, WY

3. American bison,  Bison bison

Channel Catfish by Siobhan Sullivan

4. Channel catfish,  Ictalurus punctatus

Lewis's Woodpecker in Bend, OR

5. Lewis’s woodpecker,  Melanerpes lewis

Red Fox at Yellowstone National Park, WY

6. Red fox,  Vulpes vulpes

Pronghorn at Yellowstone National Park, WY

7. Pronghorn,  Antilocapra americana

Mergansers Bend,OR

8. Common merganser, Mergus merganser

The answers:

  1. Sandhill crane – Described
  2. Clark’s nutcracker – Discovered
  3. Bison – Described
  4. Channel catfish – Discovered
  5. Lewis’s woodpecker – Discovered
  6. Red fox – Described
  7. Pronghorn – Discovered
  8. Common merganser – Described