Bitterroot (lewisia rediviva): An edible herb of the purslane family

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Bitterroot, a small perennial herb, is the state flower of Montana.  It gets its name from the extremely bitter flavor of its roots. The latin name is lewisia rediviva. Lewisia means “Lewis” and was named by Frederick Pursh in honor of Meriwether Lewis, of the famous explorer duo, Lewis and Clark, due to his encounter with the plant during their expedition. Rediviva means “revive” or “brought back to life”. It was given this name because of its ability to grow after long periods of drought, as soon as water again becomes available, as though it were coming back from the dead.

Bitterroot has small short stalks that grow close to the ground, with flowers that can range from as dark as purple to as light as pinkish white. When mature, these produce egg-shaped pods with seeds that are small, black and shiny. It is part of the Portulacaceae or “Purslane” family and grows on the western side of North America from as far north as British Colombia down to Arizona and as far east as Colorado, re-blooming year after year from March to June. It is nonpoisonous and in fact, has been eaten by Native Americans as a valuable source of nutrition.

Native Americans believed that bitterroot got its origin from a woman who was desperately searching for food to feed her family. No matter how hard she looked she was unable to find any. When she realized that her search was hopeless, she started to cry. The sun took pity on her and as she cried, wherever her tears fell, a bitterroot flower bloomed so that her family would always have food to eat.  

Since the Native Americans first discovered the plant, it has been used for many different things. The first and most important use was for food. The roots were harvested right before the flowers started to bloom and were separated from the rest of the plant, then boiled and added to other vegetables, meat, soups or eaten alone with either salt or sugar to hide the bitter flavor. They have also been known to dry the bitterroot to preserve it for the winter months. Another use is to treat medical ailments such as sore throat, chest pain from either heart or lungs and poor milk production after a woman has given birth. In the present day, the foremost use is purely aesthetic.

Bitterroot grows best in areas where the soil is very sandy. It comes out of its dormancy in the early spring when there is still a chill in the air but the snow has cleared.  The seeds need light to sprout roots, so when planting it is advised to either plant them on top of the soil or cover them very lightly. Bitterroot normally grows on hills because the roots are very prone to rotting if the soil is not adequately drained of any excess moisture. When growing it outside of its normal habitat, it needs to be in a pot with drainage holes in the bottom or in an elevated area.

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