Nature News from GYE #39

July 12, 2022

This week I’d like to dedicate Nature News from GYE to friends and mentors, Tom and Mary Lou Nicholls, who have helped shape my love and knowldege of this big, old, wild world. Experiences and opportunities shared with these 2 have shaped who I have become and showed me what a gift it is to share a passion for how everything is connected. Thanks you two.

The Bloom….

Arnica cordifolia inside a Wickiup frame

Below you’ll see many images of Bitterroot and a couple other flowers from my last couple of hikes……

Whatever the combination of factors might be, Yellowstone has seen an abundance of wildflowers in bloom this summer.  With the mid-June rains, the bloom continues into the weeks of mid July and beyond. It feels like old friends returning and staying for a while.

Below….photo on left is a Richardsons Geranium, White Bog Orchid, Yellow Monkey Flower and a Water Hemlock
Photo to right is Yellow Buckwheat

Wandering the dry hillsides recently I had my breath taken away as I witnessed the spectacle of the Bitterroot bloom. It is a fleeting blush on the landscape, uncommon in many regions of the state. A perennial, the bitterroot grows close to the ground and has an exquisite pink blossom.
Lewisia rediviva, Bitterroot, is in the  family Montiaceae.  Before 2009 Lewisia was in the Purslane family, but this changed with the establishment of the Montiacea family.
Below is a panel of Lewisia rediviva

 It can be found growing at elevations ranging from 2,500 feet to over 10,000 feet. The range includes inland portions of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado and north along the Rocky Mountain Trench. Bitterroot thrive in hot, dry, rocky or sandy soils in grasslands and sagebrush habitats. Look for it on valley bottoms and adjacent lower slopes and terraces. Dormant for nearly ten months of the year, the bitterroot flowers in May or June and blooms only briefly. The plant uses stored energy from nighttime moisture to open its flowers in the morning. The flowers close during the sunny afternoons and evenings to preserve their energy.

opening in the morning

Bitterroot was a vital source of food for tribal people. Some tribes timed their spring migrations with the bloom of Bitterroot. In spring, as the flower buds appeared, the fleshy roots were dug with digging sticks and their bitter outer covering peeled off. They could be cooked fresh or dried for long-term storage. When cooked, the roots swell into a gooey mass many times their original size. Bitterroot, salmon eggs and serviceberries were combined into a nutritious, pudding-like food. Pulverized and seasoned with deer fat and moss, the cooked root could be molded into patties and carried on hunting expeditions or war parties. The root was also an important item for trade and barter.  A basketful or roots could be traded for a horse!

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark “discovered” this plant in the western Montana valley that now bears its name. In late August of 1805, instead of admiring the flower, Meriwether Lewis saw and tasted the root. Writing in his journal, Lewis described the root as “cilindric and as white as snow throughout, except some small parts of the hard black rind which they had not seperated in the preperation… [the roots] became perfectly soft by boiling, but had a very bitter taste, which was naucious to my pallate, and [I] transfered them to the Indians who had eat them heartily.”  Nearly a year after his first taste of bitterroot, Lewis again encountered the plant. In early July of 1806, at Traveler’s Rest in western Montana, Lewis collected a bitterroot plant, and three other species, to add to the collection he would present to President Jefferson.   His diary notes:  “I found several other uncommon plants specemines of which I preserved.”

Upon the Expedition’s return, Bitterroot was one of 134 plant specimens presented to Frederick Pursh for analysis and identification. Pursh gave the plant its scientific name, Lewisia rediviva, acknowledging Meriwether Lewis’s role in bringing the plant to the attention of western science and describing the plant’s apparent ability to return from the dead. Pursh noted that the specimen Lewis carried from Montana, deprived of water and soil for several years, had been planted. Although no flower blossomed, Lewis’s bitterroot had “vegetated for more than one year.” Rediviva, a Latin word, translates to “brought back to life.”

Montana Bitterroot and Wild Rose

In 1889 Montana gained statehood.   An 1894 referendum was petitioned to decide the official flower.  This was set for the fall vote. When the polls closed, 5,857 ballots were in. More than 32 separate flowers received votes. The winner (with 3,621 votes) was the bitterroot, followed by the evening primrose (787 votes) and the wild rose (668). The 1895 Legislature sanctioned  Bitterroot as the state flower.  That is still the case today.

To learn more about these most delicate flowers, here are some links.

The second link is a beautiful legend from the Bitterroot Salish People, “Connected to Everything”  

Connected to Everything

Next are some stories of bitterroot told by Aspen Decker who is an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes

Enjoy this very special species of flower that thrives in the most extreme environments. It is one of my favorites. Everytime I have created a square for a block quilt I have made it a Bitterroot Flower!

As summer moves along, I wish you the best,

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