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The state flower of Montana is Lewisia rediviva, the bitterroot. A low-growing perennial wildflower, the bitterroot has multiple flowers in shades of pink and purple tinged with white rising above a rosette of green leaves. Named the state flower of Montana in 1895, the bitterroot is the only floral emblem of the state. The bitterroot's beauty, early flowering and history as a food source were primary reasons it was chosen as the state flower of Montana.
Following the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, many U.S. states began to choose state floral symbols to represent them in a National Garland proposed by a Women’s Conference held at that Fair. Mary Long Alderson, a journalist, was the driving force behind the campaign to choose the state flower of Montana. After founding the Montana Floral Emblem Society in 1894, she arranged for a statewide vote to show popular opinion. More than 30 flowers appeared on the ballot, but the bitterroot won by a wide margin. In February of 1895 the state legislature formally adopted the bitterroot as the state flower of Montana.
Bitterroot is found from British Columbia and Alberta south through Washington, Oregon, California, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Arizona. The plant requires relatively cool conditions to thrive and in the southern part of its range is found primarily at high altitude. It grows best in dry soil and is often found in rocky areas or growing in loose gravel.
The plant flowers in early spring, May to June in most of its range. Individual flowers are up to 2 inches (about 5 cm) in diameter and are made up of 10 to 19 petals each 0.75 to 1 inch (2 to 2.5 cm) in length. Stems are very short so the flower often appears nestled in the leaves. After the flowering is finished, the leaves die back and the plant goes dormant during mid-summer. The foliage regrows in late summer and remains green through the winter, allowing the plant to flower as the snow recedes.
Bitterroot’s long, thick, taproot was a major seasonal source of food for members of the Paiute, Shoshone, Ute and Flathead tribes in Montana. The plant’s name comes from the bitterness of the raw root but roasting, steaming or boiling makes it palatable. After cooking, it can be dried for storage or used while traveling. Even today, the root is sometimes gathered for eating.