Bitterroot, or Lewisia rediviva, is a low-growing perennial found in the Western United States. It grows on the ground rather than above it, but does not behave like a ‘spreading’ plant might. The leaves are succulent and the blooms are large, white-pink, and stop-you-in-your-tracks beautiful. The fleshy taproot was eaten by First Nations tribes and is the source of life for the plant during droughty summer months.
It grows in gravelly, well-draining soil and is a great example of extreme plant survival. Bitterroot may go an entire month or so without rain, and still these small plants are able to produce a flashy, resource-intensive flower. Living in the sagebrush steppe of the West taught me so much about the awe-inspiring survival abilities of plants, and Bitterroot quickly became my favorite wildflower.
In these images, you can see: 1) how easy it might be to walk right by Bitterroot without spotting it, and 2) the plant’s deep pink-red, tightly wrapped flower buds. If you look closely at the last photo, you can spot just a little of the green leaf.
Bitterroot played a role in Lewis & Clark’s adventures, and you can learn more about the plant at Discovering Lewis & Clark. There you will find a story about how the Bitterroot flower came to be; I’m not sure if it’s actually a traditional legend, but it’s beautiful and so I’ve reposted here.
An old Flathead Indian woman sat weeping on the bank of the In-schu-te-schu, or Red Willow River, in the shadow of the Chi-quil-quil-kane, or Red Mountains, singing a death song for her starving sons. The rising sun heard her plaint, and sent a red spirit-bird to comfort her. The bird promised that from each of her falling tears a new flower would grow, tinted with the rose of his feathers and the white of her hair, and springing from a root as bitter as her sorrow but as nourishing as her love. The prophecy came true, and her people called the plant spetlem–”bitter.”