Don’t tell our wild bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) plants that they’re hard to grow. That’s the rumor in the gardening world but you’d be hard-pressed to see evidence of that here in Montana.
Actually, bitterroot is quite easy to grow from seed, according to the Montana Native Plant Society.
Anyway, let’s get up to speed on our state flower.
- Our state flower was named, Lewisia rediviva, for Meriwether Lewis, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He brought back six samples of the plant, “which are preserved in the Lewis & Clark Herbarium in Philadelphia,” according to Kathy Lloyd and Spencer Shropshire of the Montana Native Plant Society.
- Bitterroot was chosen as Montana’s state flower in 1893.
- Bitterroot is botanically classified as a forb, an herbaceous flowering plant that isn’t a grass, it lacks a woody stem and dies down to the soil after it flowers. It is, however, a perennial, so it will return when the weather warms.
- The lovely bitterroot thrives in Montana’s valleys and mountains, most particularly in western Montana.
Bitterroot’s foliage is very succulent-like and grows low to the ground. The flower is typically pink, although you may see some so pale as to appear white. It blooms with only one flower per stem and the flowers remain open for only two to three days.
If you were to dig up the plant you’d find that, like carrots and sugar beets, bitterroot has a fleshy taproot which stores its food reserves. Although the plant grows to only 2 inches in height, the taproot may grow to 12 inches in length, according to the experts at the Montana Native Plant Society.
In nature, bitterroot prefers dry sites and gravelly soil.
A member of the purslane family, bitterroot was an important source of nutrition for the Bitterroot Valley’s Flathead tribe. In fact, the roots were dried and stored for fall and winter consumption. They also used the root as a type of currency at trading centers. Wouldn’t it be great if lenders would take bitterroot taproots for a down payment on a Billings home for sale? Ah, we can dream!
The Lewis and Clark Expedition included the first white men to arrive in the valley and, in 1806, at the confluence of Lolo Creek and the Bitterroot River, Meriwether Lewis collected his bitterroot specimens.
A year later, German botanist Frederick Pursh proclaimed the plant as representative of a new genus and named it after Lewis.
It took another 83 years for the notion of bitterroot as the state flower to take hold. The members of the Montana Floral Emblem Association voted on several plants and bitterroot was the overwhelming choice. The Montana legislature made it official in 1895.
Bitterroot seeds in nature travel on the wind and require a period of cold weather before they’ll germinate. You can mimic this ritual by enveloping the seeds in slightly moist sand or peat most placed in a zip-locked bag and then in the refrigerator. Allow them to remain there for one month, or longer (up to 14 weeks, according to our native plant society).
After removing the seeds from the cold, plant them in pots filled with a sterile seed-starting mix and place them in a sunny area. Keep them moist but not soaking wet.
The best place to grow Montana’s flower is a rock garden, and it will not grow in the shade so provide it a nice sunny spot in your Billings garden. Avoid the urge to over-water it (it doesn’t tolerate wet soil), unless it is in bloom which won’t happen for the plant’s first three years of life.
Enjoy the flowers while you can, because when spring leaves, so does bitterroot, which goes dormant until fall.