The above, bright garden centre find took me on a journey of discovery. Research revealed the famous historic exploration of North America in early 1800s. The genus Lewisia is named after Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) of Lewis and Clark expedition renown. The plant was already well-known to the indigenous population. Today, Lewisia rediviva, commonly known as Bitterroot, is Montana’s State Flower.
Native American Myth
The Bitterroot has a place in the myths of the Shoshone and Flathead (or Bitterroot Salish) tribes of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and Western Montana respectively. The traditional tale concerns an elderly woman who cried because she couldn’t find food for her family. The Sun sent a red bird to comfort her distress. The bird explained to her that wherever her bitter tears fell a root would grow. It would be nourished by her love. The roots would reflect the old woman’s white hair. Their taste would be as bitter as her tears. The flowers would be tinted by the bird’s red feathers. In future, she would always be able to find food for her tribe from these roots.
Starchy Food Source
The Bitterroot survives on north-facing cliffs that are subjected to extreme weather conditions. The plant grows on rocky outcrops. It is accustomed to hot, dry summers and cold, snowy winters. The indigenous population prized the plant’s roots as a starchy food source and for medicinal properties.
The roots have to be peeled and cooked to reduce the bitterness. They take on a pink colouration and swell up to 6 times their original size in cooking. As they still remained difficult to digest, they were mixed with berries and meat. Bitterroot was considered a luxury item rather than a staple diet. The Native Americans even timed their migrations by the Bitterroot’s month of May so that they could harvest the tastier, young plants. The roots can be ground into powder for storage. The bitterness decreases with age.
A Chance Discovery
It seems that the sudden appearance of scouts from the Lewis and Clark expedition alarmed members of the Shoshone tribe. They fled leaving behind their collection of Bitterroots. Meriwether Lewis was not a botanist. He been serving as President Thomas Jefferson’s personal secretary and aide when he was put in charge of the official, military expedition to explore the American North West territory. The expedition members collected a total of 134 botanical specimens over a 3-year period. Yet, it was the Bitterroot that was to be named after Lewis.
A Remarkable Plant
The Bitterroot specimen stayed alive without soil and water for several years. Remarkably, when planted, it regrew. The plant was analysed and described by the German-American botanist, Frederick Traugott Pursh. He named it after Lewis and assigned it the epithet rediviva to denote its remarkable ability to revive, seemingly reborn.
The extraordinary regenerative powers of the plant were tested by none other than Sir William Hooker at Kew. A specimen was boiled in hot water. It regrew and flowered one and a half years later in the month of May. The story was told and illustrated in an 1863 issue of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (see below). Hooker mentioned the Native Americans’ name of Spat’lum referring to the plant’s bitterness, although there seem to be multiple spellings. (I have also encountered spetlum and spetlem. French trappers described the plant as racème amer: root + bitter). Since Hooker’s time the Lewisia genus has been moved from the Portulaceae to the Montiaceae plant family.
The above illustration clearly shows Lewisia rediviva‘s swollen stem, known botanically as a caudex. The caudex acts as a water store for the plant through the hot, dry summers of the native habitat. All Lewisia have succulent leaves to some extent. There are deciduous, semi-deciduous and evergreen plants. The leaves of deciduous plants like Lewisia rediviva shrivel up at or immediately after flowering. This means that the low-growing and brightly-coloured flowers stand out against their rocky environment.
I encountered evergreen cultivars of Lewisia cotyledon in the garden centre earlier this year. The leaves look and feel succulent. The flowers display beautiful, bright rosettes from white, peach, through to a range of light and deep pinks. They are recommended as drought-tolerant for rockeries or as alpine plants. They are hardy in cold weather – in fact they require a cold spell to germinate. They will not tolerate overwatering. The roots will rot if mistreated in this way. They have their own water store after all. They may need the protection of a cold frame during the sustained wet weather of British winters. For allergic gardeners, Bitterroot has the advantage of a low allergenic rating of the OPALS scale of 1.
© Karen Andrews
References and Further Reading
- Alpine Garden Society (2018): Lewisia. Alpine Garden Society Plant Encyclopaedia.
- BitterrootHeaven.com (2012): Bitterroot Plant Trivia.
- Christenhusz, Maarten J. M. & Fay, Michael F. & Chase, Mark W. (2017): Plants of the World. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Vascular Plants. Kew. Chicago.
- Hooker, Sir William Jackson (1863): Tab 5395. Lewisia rediviva. Spat’lum, or reviving Lewisia. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. 1 August 1863. Vol XIX of Third Series.
- Klingaman, Gerald (2005): Plant of the Week: Bitterroot, Lewisia. University of Arkansas System. Division of Agriculture Research & Extension.
- Lewis And Clark Trail Heritage Foundation (1998-2020): Frederick Traugott Pursh. Discovering Lewis Clark.
- Lewis And Clark Trail Heritage Foundation (1998-2020): Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809). Discovering Lewis Clark.
- Plants of the World Online (2020): Lewisia rediviva. Kew Science.
- State Symbols USA (?): Bitterroot. Montana State Flower.
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