A Bit About the Bitterroot
While the bitterroot lily, Montana’s state flower, grows throughout most of the western part of the state, the Bitterroot Valley is, unsurprisingly, a good place to plan a sighting.
Legend holds that the plant sprang from the tears of a Flathead mother whose family was starving. The sun, hearing the mother’s sorrow, sent a bird as a messenger to turn her tears into a plant whose roots were nutritious (albeit as bitter as the mother’s sorrow) but whose beauty would reflect the devotion of the grieving woman.
The roots of these beautiful light-pink flowers were a staple of the Indian diet. They were eaten fresh in season and also dried for use in the winter or when traveling. The Flathead boiled or steamed the roots, then mixed them with berries, marrow, or meat. Although the snow-white meat of the roots can be bitter to the point of causing nausea, the Flathead found that if they were gathered before flowering, or dried sufficiently, the bitterness was much reduced.
Elaborate rituals accompanied the bitterroot’s harvest. Among the Flatheads, one old woman led other female gatherers out in the search. When the party reached the first bitterroot, the leader would stick her elk-horn digger at the base of the plant. After the others planted their diggers, a prayer was offered, and the first plant was uprooted. Only after the prayer was offered was the season open; to dig before the ceremony was to invite a small harvest. The following day the first root was given to the chief, and a daylong feast ensued.
© W.C. McRae & Judy Jewell from Moon Montana, 7th Edition