Three Roots

Back at Camp Fortunate on August 22, 1805, Lewis reported on an experience that George Drouillard had on the previous day. About noon, Drouillard came upon a family of six Shoshones–an old man, a young man, a boy and three women–whom he engaged in a sign-language conversation for some twenty minutes. As the Indians prepared to continue their journey, Drouillard walked about fifty paces away to catch his own horse, leaving his gun lying on the ground where they had been talking. The young man snatched up the weapon and the whole group sped off toward Lemhi Pass, leaving their belongings behind. Drouillard followed in hot pursuit.

after runing them about 10 miles the horses of two of the women nearly gave out and the young fellow with the gun from their frequent crys slackened his pace. . . .    at length Drewer overtook the women and by signs convinced them that he did not wish to hirt them they then halted and the young fellow approached still nearer, [Drouillard] asked him for his gun but the only part of the answer which he could understand was pah kee which he knew to be the name by which they called their enimies.      watching his opportunity when the fellow was off his guard he suddonly rode along side of him seized his gun and wrest her out of his hands.    the fellow finding Drewyer too strong for him and discovering that he must yeald the gun had pesents [presence] of mind to open the pan and cast the priming [powder] before he let the gun escape from his hands; now finding himself devested of the gun he turned his horse about and laid whip leaving the women to follow him as well as they could.

Drouillard immediately returned to the meeting-place, picked up the Indians' abandoned animal-hide grocery sacks, and took them back to Captain Lewis at Fortunate Camp. Besides the avoidance of bloodshed by all parties, the best outcome of the incident was that Lewis learned about three unfamiliar species of edible roots–a bushel of them altogether. The Shoshones who were encamped nearby helped him sort them out, and told him how they were customarily prepared.

Edible Valerian

Valeriana edulis

photo of Edible Valerian, Valeria edulis

One root may have been a species of valerian (vuh-LEHR-ee-an), such as Valeriana edulis (vuh-leh-ree-AYE-nuh ed-YOU-lis), or edible valerian. Lewis described it as being

fusiform abot six inches long and about the size of a man's finger at the larger end tapering into a small point. the radicles [secondary roots, rootlets] larger than in most fusiform roots.    the rind was white and thin. the body or consistence of the root was white mealy and easily reduced by pounding to a substance resembleing flour which thickens with boiling water something like flour and is agreeably flavored.    this rout is frequently eaten by the Indians either green or in it's dryed state without the preparation of boiling.

Fusiform means spindle-shaped, that is, tapered at both ends, so Lewis misspoke. His description was correct, however. Valeriana edulis does have a carrot-shaped root.

The botanical Latin name–a form of the word valere, "to be healthy"–refers to its once widely recognized medicinal qualities. Indians used it chiefly as a topical for boils, bruises, rheumatism, and bleeding wounds. The root is poisonous if eaten raw, but if properly cooked it is safe and tasty. Many tribes, including the Shoshones, consumed great quantities of it, partly because it is large and relatively easy to harvest, and also because it is quite nutritious. It has been said to taste like chewing tobacco, which accounts for another of its common names, tobacco root, although it has never gained any popularity among nicotine addicts. For centuries, the roots of some species of the genus Valeriana have been used as tranquilizers.1

About a dozen of the world's 200 species of the genus Valeriana are found in the Northern Rockies. In September the roots emit a strong odor which some say resembles the stench of unwashed feet, almost sickeningly so, but no one will deny it seizes one's attention. In any case, it foretells the onset of autumn in the Rockies. The men may have noticed it as they crossed the Bitterroot Range west of Travelers' Rest in September of 1805, and wondered where the stink was coming from, but none of the journalists pointed their fingers at anyone else. On their way back across the Bitterroots in late June of 1806 they would have seen it in leaf, though not yet in bloom, and far from odiferous. Although Lewis collected more than fifty plant specimens along the Lolo Trail, he apparently did not pay particular attention to any species of the ubiquitous, mostly inconspicuous—but seasonally obnoxious—Valeriana.

The second root in the bag,which Lewis would find in bloom at Travelers' Rest on the return trip in early July of 1806, was undoubtedly the bitterroot, although Lewis himself never got around to calling it that, at least in writing. His specimen was to be compromised, accidentally, after it was deposited in the post-expedition herbarium, but botanist Frederick Pursh, whom President Jefferson had chosen to be one of two recipients of the expedition's botanical specimens, named it in its discoverer's honor, Lewisia rediviva Pursh.

The third root proved later to be a western spring beauty. On this date, Lewis described it as being "about the size of a nutmeg,

and of an irregularly rounded form, something like the smallest of the Jarusolem artichoke, which they also resemble in every other appearance.    they had become very hard by being dryed these I also boiled agreeably to the instruction of the Indians and found them very agreeable. they resemble the Jerusalem Artichoke very much in their flavor and I thought them preferable, however there is some allowance to be made for the length of time I have now been without vegitable food to which I was always much attatched. these are certainly the best root I have yet seen in uce among the Indians.    I asked the Indians to shew me the plant of which these roots formed a part but they informed me that neither of them grew near this place.

Western spring beauty

Claytonia lanceolata

Photo of Western spring beauty


The corm of a spring beauty

small bulb of the Western spring beauty

On June 26 of the following year, while waiting at Hungery Creek, Sacagawea brought Lewis a root that he recognized as the same kind Drouillard had brought to him the previous summer. Once more Lewis compared it, "in flavor and consistency," with the Jerusalem artichoke. Then he dropped two important clues to its real identity. It had, he said, "two small oval smooth leaves placed opposite on either side of the peduncle just above the root" which was about four inches long, round and smooth. Undoubtedly it was the western spring beauty, Claytonia lanceolata. The next day he collected a specimen.2 The Swedish biologist Carl Linneaus (1770-78) named the genus Claytonia (clay-TONE-ee-uh) for the early Virginia naturalist John Clayton (1694-1773).3 The specific epithet (lan-see-oh-LAY-tuh), refers to the lance-shaped–not oval–leaves. Eaten raw, this tuber–actually a corm, or underground stem–is said to taste like a radish; when cooked, its flavor and texture resemble that of a baked potato.


1. H. D. Harrington, Edible Native Plants of the Rocky Mountains (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1967), 225–27. Daniel E. Moerman, Native American Ethnobotany (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 1998), 588.

2. A. Scott Earle and James L. Reveal, Lewis and Clark's Green World: The Expedition and its Plants (Helena, Montana: Farcountry Press, 2003), 128.

3. Paul Russell Cutright, Lewis and Clark: Pioneering Naturalists (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 157–58.

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities.