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Bitter Root: Lewisia rediviva Pursh
Lewisia rediviva Pursh [ Plantae: Angiosperms: Eudicots: Core Eudicots: Caryophyllales: Portulacaceae: Lewisia: L. rediviva ]
Common Names: Bitteroot, Bitter Root, racine amere, spetlum, spetlem, naamtcu, Ktanxa, naqamcu, mo’otaa-heseeo’otse, black medicine
Commonly found in open shrub or grasslands, low lying forests in lower elevations upwards to sub-alpine terrain atop gravelly to heavy dry soils. Found throughout southern British Columbia, eastern Oregon and Washington near the Cascades south towards southern California, east to Wyoming, Montana, northern Colorado and Arizona.
Bitter root is a small low growing perennial herb that is common in North America, especially in grasslands within low or moderate elevations. Bitter root when mature, exhibits a white to pinkish flower late May / early June. It possesses a fleshy taproot with simple or branched base leaves and a leafless flow stem ranging from 1-3 centimeters in height. Flowers form at the tip of the 5-6 linear bract whorl ranging from 5-10 mm in size brandishing a single flower on each stem with 5-9 oval to oblong shaped petals approximately 18-35 mm length. Once mature, the plant produces egg-shaped capsules with 6-20 rounded seeds.
The explorer Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, wrote in his journal describing the plant as “cilindric and as white as snow throughout, except some small parts of the hard black rind which they had not seperated in the preperation… [the roots] became perfectly soft by boiling, but had a very bitter taste, which was naucious to my pallate, and [I] transfered them to the Indians who had eat them heartily.”
Lewisia rediviva Pursh
Wildcrafted. Harvested throughout history by Native American tribes, especially in the Pacific Northwest.
Bitter Root was a well known foodstuff utilized by various Native American tribes such as the Flathead Indians, Shoshone, Cheyenne, and others.
Various tribes consumed the roots, often used to accompany grouse (Ktunaxa). The Ktunaxa ate bitter root with sugar while others ate it with salt. The root was often boiled in preparation. Native American women would dig up the plant, preferably before it flowered, cleaned the roots, boiled them, and mixed it with meat and/or berries. Hunting expeditions would take patties made from the pulverized root packed with deer fat and moss. Sometimes a sack of bitterroot would bring enough high trade value it was traded for a horse.
According to the Organic Facts website, Bitter root possesses the ability to relieve pain, eliminate respiratory irritation, calm the nerves, purify the skin, detoxify the body, regulate blood sugar, and settle upset stomachs. It is said that bitter root can be used to slow the pulse of the heart acting as a soothing agent effecting circulation, blood vessel dilation, and relief of excess stress upon the cardiovascular system and helpful preventative for atherosclerosis, heart attacks, and strokes. As a pain killer, utilized as an analgesic rub on injuries, headaches, and general muscle soreness. Eaten or added to tea could reduce inflammation of the lungs and respiratory system, loosening phegm and mucus, showing success with gout, arthritis, and gastro-intestinal disorders. Eaten it has been said to soothe sore throats. Rubbed on the skin or added to cleansing agents is well known to protect the skin from infection and decay, stimulating growth keeping young and beautiful skin tones. It is also a diuretic to detox the body from excess salts, fats, water, or toxins in the system – protecting health of the kidney. It has also been reputed for healing upset stomachs, often remedied by chewing the leaves or eating the roots to stop gastro-intestinal disorders.
The Lemhi Shoshone believed that the bitter root possessed a small red core in the upper taproot possessed many magical powers, especially one used to prevent bear attacks. It is also seen through history as a resurrection plant, because of its ability to revive each year back to life. It was because of this, that botanist Frederick Pursh gave it the latin species name Rediviva, a Latin word that translates to “brought back to life.”
Folklore and History:
Originally gathered by the Cheyenne, Shoshone, Flatheads, and other tribes in the Pacific Northwest. The use spread to the French trappers and became known as racine amere (bitter root). Meriwether Lewis ate bitter root in 1805 during the Lewis and Clark Expedition and labelled “Lewisia rediviva” by the botanist Frederick Pursh. On February 27, 1895 bitter root became the official state flower of Montana.
© 2016 ~ Article by Thomas Baurley, Technogypsie Productions, Originally published in 2016 with revisions through the years. All Rights Reserved.
- Botanical.com 2016 “Bitter Root”. Website https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/b/bitroo47.html referenced 3/19/16.
- Jepson Herbarium 2016 “Lewisia rediviva” Jeson eFlora: Taxon page. Jepson Herbarium: Univ. of California, Berkeley.
- Mathews, Daniel “A Trailside Reference: Rocky Mountain Natural History (Grand Teton to Jasper). Raven Editions.
- Munger, Susan H. “Common to this Country: Botanical Discoveries of Lewis and Clark. Artisan: Workman Press.
- National Park Service 2016 “Bitterroot” NPS Website Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Website http://www.nps.gov/lecl/learn/nature/bitterroot.htm referenced 3/19/16.
- Organic Facts 2016 “Health Benefits of Bitter Root”. Website https://www.organicfacts.net/health-benefits/herbs-and-spices/bitter-root.html referenced 3/19/16.
- Ritter, Sharon Anelia “Lewis and Clark’s Mountain Wilds: A Site Guide to the Plants and Animals They Encountered in the Bitterroots”. University of Idaho Press.
- St. Mary’s Mission Museum n.d. “Bitterroot flower and its place in Montana history”. Website http://www.saintmarysmission.org/Bitterroot.html referenced 3/19/16.
- Sullivan, Steven K 2015 “Lewisia rediviva”
- USDA 2016 “Lewisia rediviva” Plants Database: U.S. Dept of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.
- Wikipedia 2016 “Bitter Root”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Website https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitterroot referenced 3/19/2016.
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