bitterrootBitterroot, Lewisia rediviva, 2005. Watercolor and graphite, giclee prints available
10″ x 6 3/4″



The first Europeans to encounter Bitterroot were the French “voyageurs” who called it “racine amer” on account of its bitter taste. When the botantist Frederick Pursh catalogued the specimens collected by Lewis and Clark, he named the Bitterroot Lewisia in Lewis’s honor and described it as rediviva or “revivable” since the dried root retained the ability to sprout when seemingly dead. But long before acquiring its scientific name, the plant had many aboriginal names. It was called eks-ix-is by the Blackfeet, konah by the Snake, mepemcu by the Kootenai and spatlum by the Salish Indians in Montana. Among the Salish, Bitterroot is revered as a life-sustaining gift from the Creator. It was once a major food source, valued for its ability to create a sensation of satiety when food was scarce. The dry, gravely terrrain where it grew was watched over by a Keeper, always a woman, who greeted the plants in the spring and announced the proper time for harvest. The tribe’s women and children would unearth the roots with fire-hardened digging sticks. They would remove the dark skin and the “heart”, then steam the white roots in pits lined with heated rocks. The roots were served with meat stews or sweetened with Camus bulbs and berries. Those that were not cooked were dried for future use. Today, big box stores sit on the ancient gathering sites and consumption of the plant is primarily ritual. A Keeper still supervises its harvest in early spring, and the traditional prayers of thanksgiving are still offerred. But now it is dug by both men and women who number in the dozens instead of hundreds. Using homemade metal tools, they fill plastic buckets with the cleaned roots, then cook them in commercial-sized soup kettles in a communal kitchen. Tribal healers use it as a heart tonic and is often included in funeral meals as a symbol of ressurrection.