© 1993 Mark Behan
A peeled root lies in the gravely, well-drained soil it prefers.
The leaves of the bitterroot appear soon after the snow melts in the valleys, signaling that the roots are tender, nutritious, and ripe for harvesting. When the long, slender, conical buds take the places, between late April and the latter days of June—depending largely on the elevation—they draw starch from the roots, and the brownish-black bark becomes progressively more difficult to peel away.
Flathead (Salish), Kutenai, Shoshoni, and Nez Perce people all regard the bitterroot with solemn reverence. No other root may be harvested until the elder women of the tribe have conducted the annual First Roots ceremony, just after leaves begin to appear on deciduous trees, and before the buds of other flowers and shrubs open for the first time. Sometime within that interval is the moment when the dark, extremely bitter skin of the plant's roots can most easily be peeled away. In olden times each family quickly but methodically collected a bushel or two of roots—enough to last for a year—and spread them out to dry in the sun.
Courtesy K. Ross Toole Archives, The University of Montana
A Flathead tribal elder peels spetlem ("bitter"), and tosses each root onto the drying pad before her. The bitterroot cannot be pulled from the ground; the gravelly soil must be carefully loosened until the whole plant can be lifted out. Beside the root bag is her long, sharp, two-handed iron digging tool. Prior to contact the tool was either made of a fire-hardened willow stick with part of a deer's antler for a handle, or entirely of part of an elk's antler.
Since the beginning of EuroAmerican settlement in the middle of the 19th century, more and more of the meadows and foothills in the valley of the the Bitterroot River have been given over to agriculture, apple orchards, commerce, transportation and housing. One of the largest ancient beds near the confluence of the Bitterroot and Clark's Fork Rivers is covered with suburban homes; another is now part of the campus of the University of Montana. Today the bitterroot is more likely to be found in a domestic rock garden somewhere else in the United States.
The root of the bitterroot was once considered highly nutritious, but in the late 1980s nutritional analysis showed it to contain only 3.87 calories per gram dry weight, 10 grams of protein, 0.85 grams of carbohydrate, and 2.35 mg of calcium, plus lesser amounts of lipid, ash, iron, magnesium and zinc.1 It is somewhat starchy, though not as much so as, say, the root of the common dandelion. In any case, its particular starch is very hard for an unaccustomed stomach to digest, which may account for the fact that even Indians ate only small portions of the root, usually mixed with other ingredients—as a thickener in soup, for instance. When cooked by itself it swells up into an unappetizing, gelatinous pink glop. At best, as some wild-food epicures will cheerfully attest, it's an acquired taste. But you won't find it in a health-food store.
Historically the bitterroot has seen service as a medicine—to increase the flow of milk in nursing mothers; to relieve the pain of a sore throat; to neutralize poison ivy rash; or to suppress symptoms of diabetes. Generally, though, it has only its acerbic flavor to recommend it as a medicament. Anything that tastes that bad must be very good for you.
Thus it may be that the unusual life cycle of the bitterroot is what has made it spontaneously appealing. It beautifully symbolizes the mysteries of birth, death and resurrection—that irrepressible, universal human longing for immortality.
- 1. H. H. Norton and others, "Vegetable food products of the foraging economies of the Paciic Northwest," Ecology of Food and Nutrition, Vol. 14, No. 3 (1984), 224.