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What Is a Bitterroot?

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  • Written By: Sara Schmidt
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 11 July 2014
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The flowering bitterroot is a low-growing plant native to the western areas of the United States and Canada. Its base is very short and often branched, while its root is thick. Though sometimes white, the flower itself is typically a light to dark shade of pink.

Bitterroot typically does not grow more than a 1.5 inches (3 cm) in height. Each flower features a whorl of five to six bracts, with each stem featuring one flower. Though the plants do not contain leaves, each has at least six sepals and an average of 15 petals.

These succulent plants are also known by their Latin nomenclature, Lewisia rediviva. The perennial is often called the rock rose, due to the plant's soft, often pink appearance popping up through the rocky terrain. A hardy plant, it thrives in very dry, heavy soil as well as gravel. It is typically found in lower mountains, brush plains, and other dry areas.

Strong bitterroot plants can survive up to a full year without water. When the bitterroot is mature, it releases small capsules into its environment. These oval pellets are filled with small round seeds. Each capsule typically contains six to 20 of these seeds.

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Several native North American tribes found many uses for the low-growing plants, which they called Spetlum. Named after its bitter taste, the plants are not pleasant when consumed raw. When boiled, they can be eaten with meat or berries as a delicacy. They were also combined with deer meat and moss to create portable patties of food to be eaten while traveling. Tribes who sought out the roots for this purpose did so early in the season in order to acquire them while they were fresh, mildly bitter, and fleshy.

Some tribes dried the plants' roots for various uses or traded them for expensive goods, such as horses. Certain tribes, such as the Lemhi Shoshone, thought the flowers contained magical powers, such as the ability to prevent animal attacks. A tribal legend of the plant's origin tells of a mother whose tears, shed because she could not find food, dropped to the ground and sprouted the plant.

This low plant was first made famous by explorers Lewis and Clark during their travels. Since then, the perennial has been dubbed the state flower of Montana. Several natural formations in the state, including a valley, mountain range, and river, have also been named after the bitterroot plant. Businesses in the area also often incorporate the word in their company names.

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