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.
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.
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.