Bitter Tears

Page 2 of 5

Figure 2

"A singular plant"

Bitterroot, Lewisia rediviva

cluster of bitterroot blossoms

© 1993 by Mark Behan

"I met with a singular plant today in blume
of which I preserved a specemine."

Lewis; June 1, 1806, near the Clearwater River.

Figure 3

Bitterroot, Lewisia rediviva

bitterroot buds

© 1993 by Mark Behan

An old Flathead Indian woman sat weeping on the bank of the In-schu-te-schu, or Red Willow River, in the shadow of the Chi-quil-quil-kane, or Red Mountains, singing a death song for her starving children. The rising sun heard her plaint, and sent a red spirit-bird to comfort her. The bird promised that from each of her falling tears a new flower would grow, tinted with the rose of his feathers and the white of her hair, and springing from a root as bitter as her sorrow but as nourishing as her love. The prophecy came true, and her people called the plant spetlem—"bitter."

As soon as the grass begins to turn green in April, this plant puts forth its small, cylindrical, tapered, deep-green leaves from a short stalk that is barely visible at the surface of the ground. Late in the fifth lunar month of the year, from five to ten two-inch flowerstalks reach up with buds that the morning sun unfolds, and the evening twilight closes to rest. In due time the leaves begin to shrivel and die, and the plant puts all its energy into creating its flowers.

Each blossom is unique, for so is each petal. Day by sun-started day the color fades, until the petals dry up and blow away, leaving a tiny parasol-shaped capsule of jet-black seeds, soon to be sown near and far by the wind. By early July—too soon, too soon—all visible traces of the plant will have disappeared like tears into the gravelly soil, awaiting another distant spring for its rebirth. Even if the root is pulled up, dried, and kept for months, it can be replanted, and it will be born again. Rediviva!