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Natural HistoryPlantsLewisia Rediviva
Home Ground
Lewis's Specimen of Bitterroot
 

Spetlem

Page 4 of 5

A peeled root lies in the gravely, well-drained soil it prefers.

he 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 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 methodically collected a bushel or two of roots—enough to last for a year—and spread them out to dry in the sun.

A Flathead Indian woman peels spetlem,
and tosses each root onto the drying-pad before her.
Beside the root bag is her sharp two-handed digging tool.

For the past hundred years many of the meadows along the banks of the the Bitterroot River of western Montana have been given over to other uses. One of the largest ancient beds near the mouth of the river 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 bitterroot was once considered highly nutritious, and it is indeed starchy, though not as much so as, say, the root of the common dandelion. In any case, the starch is very hard to digest, which may account for the fact that even Indians ate 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 bitter root 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.

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 rebirth—that irrepressible, universal human dream of immortality.

-- 5/2003; rev. 6/2012

Home Ground
Lewis's Specimen of Bitterroot


 
From Discovering Lewis & Clark ®, http://www.lewis-clark.org © 1998-2014
by The Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, Washburn, North Dakota.
Journal excerpts are from The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary E. Moulton
13 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001)