The bitter root played a part, though a small and inconspicuous one, in that epic of American exploration, the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It was the specimen taken from the herbarium of Meriwether Lewis that was first described by the botanist Pursh and named Lewisia rediviva.
The acquisition of a dignified Latin name seems to have been the first forward step in its career; from the simple ornament of the primeval wilderness and friend of the Indian, this blushing beauty has risen to the magnificent position of chosen flower of Montana, the Treasure State, and has given its English name—bitter root—to a mountain range, a river, and to the famous Bitter Root Valley.
Bitter Root Valley, the depression which separates the Bitter Root Mountains from the Rockies for a distance of about 105 miles, long before the white man penetrated the great West, was a favored spot. The snow melted earliest within its sheltered heart; the storms blew less fiercely over its mountain walls; spring smiled there soonest, and answering smiles seemed to brighten the meadows when the bitter root held up its colored bowls to catch the sunbeams.
The Indians took a practical interest in the plant, for they knew that its thick, starchy roots could furnish food. When their brown covering is removed and the fleshy part dried, these roots will dissolve in water almost like pure starch, and when heated become a nutritious paste. This value was sufficient to give the plant great importance in the eyes of the savages, and they named the near-by mountains and river after it.
What stirring incidents of pioneer days the bitter root may have witnessed we do not know. Gradually its old friends, the Selish Indians, were replaced by white settlers, and the lovable flower seems to have had no difficulty in winning the hearts of the newcomers. Meantime mining strikes, boom towns, cowpunchers, Vigilantes, built the generous, romantic, picturesque structure of Montana's early history, which was crowned in 1889 with statehood. It was not until 1895 that the citizens of the Commonwealth found time from developing the abundant resources of the Treasure State to choose a State flower; when they did so, by legislative resolution they voiced their affection for this eager-faced, native blossom—the bitter root.
Of course, the habitat of Lewisia rediviva is not confined to the valley it has named, nor to the State of Montana. The visitor to Yellowstone may find an occasional specimen, although it is rare within the limits of the park. It is naturally most plentiful in dry, sandy, or gravelly soil, such as may be found along the Lewis and Bitter Root rivers.
Nuttall, in 1834, said of it: “This curious plant constitutes a very distinct natural order,” and decided that it was most nearly related to the cactus family. The flower he describes as “very large, wholly like that of the cactus, rose red.” Since, however, botanists have classified the bitter root as allied to the purslane family, Portulacaceae. Its resemblance to the gay garden portulaca, a native of the hot plains of southern Brazil, is apparent; but it is not so easy to connect it with that persistent weed, the common purslane, which the farmer has condemned by his forceful comparison, “As mean as pusley!”
The bitter root's relations, poor or otherwise, are of no importance in the eyes of the Montanan, who cares only that it was found rooted in the soil and has made itself inseparable from the history of his wonderful country.