Montana State Flower - Bitterroot

Bitterroot’s Latin name, Lewisia redeviva, was given to the plant in honor of Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition, for being the first person to bring the plant to the attention of American scientists. Lewis carried the plants with him for several years before delivering them to Frederick Pursh for identification. Pursh planted the bitterroot, and although it never bloomed, it did produce foliage. This prompted Pursh to give the plant the second part of its name -- redeviva -- symbolic of it apparently being able to revive from the dead.


Bitterroot has an interesting growth habit in that the leaves die back when the plant blooms, giving the appearance of flowers growing straight from the soil. Bitterroot, an herb in the purslane family, has a growth timetable that is entirely dependent on precipitation. Typically, its foliage first appears around Montana’s plains and gravelly ridges in late October. Flower buds are produced in November, the leaves die back in early May, and the plant blooms in June. The flowers, which last for two to three days, are in varying shades of pink to almost white. Bitterroot has a taproot that measures over 12 inches long.


The 1893 World’s Fair was the impetus for many states to choose an official floral emblem. Organizers called on each state to submit their state's flower for inclusion in the National Garland of Flowers. Although the bitterroot had not been officially proclaimed Montana’s state flower, it was submitted for inclusion in the garland. It took the efforts of a Bozeman woman, journalist Mary Long Alderson, to persuade Montana officials to adopt the bitterroot as the state flower. After two years of work, she succeeded, and bitterroot became Montana’s official state flower in 1895.


Bitterroot is ideal for inclusion in a Montana native plant garden or a rock garden. Because of its taproot, bitterroot does not transplant well, so if starting the plant from seed, direct sow the seed into a sunny garden spot. Give it gravelly soil, and don’t overwater it after it becomes established.


Bitterroot was a dietary staple for many of Montana’s Native American tribes. The Salish and Kootenai tribes harvested the roots in May and peeled and cooked them in a variety of ways. Roots were also dried and saved for times when food ran low. They used the roots to prepare an infusion, given to new mothers to increase milk flow and to those complaining of heart pain. Bitterroot was also a valuable commodity and used in bartering. According to the Montana Native Plant Society, a bag of bitterroot could be traded for a horse.

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