Friday, May 27, 2011

Rains elicit pageant of dazzling bitterroot flowers

Spring rains falling in Northeast Washington during the week now ending have prompted a profusion of what is, without a doubt, the most exquisite wildflower of the area, the bitterroot.

The bitterroot plant (Lewisia rediviva) is a succulent akin to cacti and, as with cacti, it requires little moisture to thrive. The bitterroot prospers in rocky and barren spots where few other native plants thrive. One is often unaware of the bitterroot in the ground except during the brief blossoming period--typically during May in Eastern Washington.

The bitterroot, the state flower of Montana, received its botanical designation, Lewisia rediviva, in honor of Captain Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition in the 19th Century.

The Bitterroot Mountains of Montana and Northern Idaho are named for the bitterroot flower, which grows there in abundance. The bitterroot plant can be found in rocky soils at intermediate elevations from British Columbia southward to Colorado, California and Arizona.

The root of the plant was a staple food of many Native American tribes. It is said to be extremely nutritious, with 50--80 grams of the starchy root being sufficient to sustain an active person for a day. The roots are easiest to find and use when the plant is in flower in the spring because the outer layer of the root, which is very bitter, slips off easily at that time. Native Americans usually dug the roots in the spring as the leaves were developing prior to flowering. Bitterroot roots were boiled before consumption. The root is said to have a good flavor, though it becomes increasingly bitter later in the growing season.

The bitterroot plant has been used as a folk medicine remedy for a variety of ailments. An infusion of the root has been used to increase the milk flow in nursing mothers, to relieve heart pain, and also as a blood purifier. The root has been eaten raw to counteract the effects of poison ivy rash, and allegedly as a treatment for diabetes. The pounded dry root has been chewed to relieve a sore throat. Also, poultices have been made utilizing raw bitterroot roots.

As with much else of the natural world, modern man fails to fully appreciate the beauty or the utility of the bitterroot plant.

D. Grant Haynes

Photography by D. Grant Haynes