Updated: Dec 28, 2021
Identification: short succulent herb. Environment gravelly or sandy, well-drained, sparsely vegetated soil of grasslands; valleys or montane regions.
Roots: fleshy and branched sometimes with a thick core. Thin reddish-brown outer skin, opaque white when peeled.
Stems: leafless, short. Leaves: basal, tubular, and long. Leaves disappear before flowering. Flowers: are solitary with 12-18 petals and numerous stamens. Vary in color (white-pink).
Grateful harvest: Traditionally, the people greet and bless the Bitterroots return as it is the first food staple to arrive in the spring. The Bitterroot has its own heart in the middle of the taproot. When the roots are peeled, the heart of the plant is returned to the soil alongside leave tops. It is unclear if the heart is a reproductive component of the plant. However, traditions remain in place to honor and respect the plant. Without proper care and blessing, the plant would return back to earth and not grow, punishing the people so that no one would be able to harvest the roots for that year. Bitterroot is versatile because once the roots are peeled, cleaned and laid out to dry, they will reconstitute at any point of time. Dried Bitterroot was essential for having in the winter as a source of starch and carbohydrates.
Cultural components: For generations women have been the caretakers of the Bitterroot (see “Story of the Bitterroot”). They would watch over the plant and determine when it was ready for harvest. Following, would be the annual Bitterroot feast. The women would select a Bitterroot plant to be honored and blessed. This Bitterroot was dug by a selected young woman in the community to continue the cycle of caretaking. When the plant was taken from the ground, words of prayer and thanks were exchanged. The community would welcome the plant and give thanks for its return. Prayers for a good harvest of other plants and for health throughout the year were exchanged. The group would gather enough Bitterroot for the feast. After it was cleaned, the Bitterroot was cooked by steaming or making it into a soup. Bitterroot soup with Huckleberries or Serviceberries was always a favorite. The sweet berries added to the bitter taste of the roots. May is the month for harvesting the Bitterroot plant (speƛ̓m spq̓niʔ)
Story of the Bitterroot:
“There was once a great famine. During those sad days there lived an old woman. She was worried because her children were slowly starving. The family had no meat and no fish. Her sons did their best to survive on old dried up shoots of balsamroot. ‘My sons have nothing to eat and will soon be dead’, the old woman sobbed. ‘I will go to the river and sing my death song.’ So, she went to the river and knelt down she wept with her face on the ground. Her grey hair covered the earth and bitter tears flowed as she sang her death song. The Sun came over the mountain and heard the woman crying and singing. The Sun saw the grieving woman and called to her guardian spirit, ‘your child cries in sorrow for her starving people, go and comfort her with beauty that grows from dead things and comfort her with food.’ Her guardian spirit took the form of a bird and flew down to the weeping woman. It settled in the silver of her hair and whispered, ‘your bitter tears have soaked the earth beneath you. Even now they are mixing with plants that have died. They are making roots of a new plant. The plant will have leaves that are close to the ground and silver like your hair. Its blossom will have the rose color of my wing feathers. Your children will dig the roots of this new plant. Though it will taste bitter like your tears, they will know it is good food and they will grow to love it. People will see the flower and say, ‘here is the silver of our mother’s hair upon the ground and the rose from the wings of the spirit bird. Our mother’s tears of bitterness have given us food.”
-Salish Kootenai College 2008, as told by Johnny Arlee
See Youtube telling of the story and more on the Bitterroot here; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8njksH9z8fg
Nutrition (per 100g)
Plant parts used
Crude fiber (g)
Vitamins: A & C