April 8, 2012 by: Ann Harwood
Bed & Breakfast St. Ignatius, MT near National Bison Range & Bitterroot Flowers
Long before explorers Lewis & Clark wrote about the beautiful purplish-pink flower of the bitterroot, Native Americans were using its roots for food and trade. Tribes dug up the roots and dried them, so they could be kept and used for months. The root was too bitter to eat unless it was cooked and usually mixed with huckleberries, other berries, or meat.
An Indian story tells how the bitterroot came to be. It says the sun heard a mother crying, because she couldn't find food for her family. The sun changed her tears into the bitterroot, so she would always have food for her children. Native Americans, particularly the Flathead Indians, treasured this precious flower and used its roots for food and trade.
The bitterroot was selected to be the Montana State Flower on February 27, 1895. A perennial, the bitterroot has an exquisite pink blossom which grows close tot he ground. Its delicate shadings offer the eye one of the loveliest of wildflowers.
The Flathead Indians used bitterroot as an important part of their diet. Tribes timed their spring migrations with the blooming of the bitterroot on the gravel river bars and hillsides. Dug, cleaned, and dried, the root provided a lightweight, nutritious supplement to a wild-game diet.
At major trading centers like The Dalles, the root was an item of barter and exchange. A sackful commanded a substantial price such as a horse.
One ounce of dried root provided sufficient nourishment for a meal, but the plant was seldom eaten raw, for its bitter taste and resultant swelling caused great discomfort. More traditionally, Indian women boiled the root, then mixed it with meat or berries. Pulverized and seasoned with deer fat and moss, the cooked root could be molded into patties and carried on hunting expeditions.
One of the loveliest of wildflowers, the bitterroot is a most appropriate floral symbol of Montana - "The Last Best Place." The bitterroot grows in the summer on the National Bison Range near Bear Spirit Lodge B&B, near St. Ignatius, Montana.