Oh my, what big flowers you have! Despite having a 2-inch flower, the color ranging from white to pale pink to deep rose, I have watched hikers stroll by without noticing this tiny plant found on the rocky slopes of the arid West. Its range is from British Columbia to southern California and east to western Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Northern Arizona. The Bitterroot Range in the northern Rockies was named after this native plant, and in 1895 Montana selected bitterroot as its state flower.
It is easy to miss even when in bloom: low-lying and usually with only a few blooms, the succulent rosette of leafless stems is hidden by the oversized flower and the plants blend into a rocky landscape. They bloom from April to June and once the heat sets in, the aerial parts completely disappear. The fleshy taproot holds the perennial in place until the following spring.
The taproot was used medicinally by some Indigenous people for an array of complaints but was considered a principal food by other Indigenous groups. The roots were steamed or boiled and combined with other foods like berries, salmon, salmon eggs, and camas bulbs (likely because of the root’s bitter taste). Considered a delicacy, the roots were dried and used as a trade item. A nutritional analysis in the 1980s reported back that the roots are not all that nutritional and in fact, were difficult to digest by humans. When cooked, the starchy root becomes a somewhat unappealing gelatinous pinkish blob.
Merriweather Lewis ate the root and brought back specimens from the 1805-06 Lewis and Clark expedition. The specimens were given to a botanist named Pursh who created a new genus, naming it after Merriweather Lewis. The species name “rediviva” is from the Latin word meaning “reviving from a dry state.” The sample plant provided by Lewis revived itself months after being given to the botanist and began growing again once planted!
On the east side of the Cascades, bitterroot is ideal for a rock garden that provides full sun, moist well-drained soil that has some gravel or coarse sand added in. West-side gardeners can also add it to a rock garden landscape or grow it in a container but will need to ensure a summer dormancy with no moisture and protection from the winter rains.