A Story of Bitterroot

Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva, L. columbiana, L. pygmaea) was once a staple food for the Okanagan, Ktunaxa and Upper Nlaka’pamux People. It was the most important of all roots. Its bright and beautiful pink flowers bloom in June, adding a hue of colour and magic to the rocky ecosystem where it thrives. Years ago, it was once traded as a dried good, and was also eaten. The prime harvesting time was right before the flowers bloomed, when the outer part of the roots were still easy to peel off. Once processed, the root was roasted or steamed in steam pits and eaten.  It was also dried and stored for later consumption. Traditionally, it was dug using digging sticks, which were dug into the earth and used to pry up the roots. (As shown in picture below.)

Nowadays, bitterroot has become a rare sight due to overgrazing and the encroachment on its habitat by humans and cattle. To come across this beautiful plant is an honour, and this past June , in eastern Washington, I was fortunate enough to find huge patches.

Bitterroot thrives in the desert, on rocky patches, where it digs its roots into the hard, dry soil. To me, the colours of the desert (the ponderosa pine and sagebrush desert) always seem so stunning in their surroundings. Out of nowhere, among the dry, crackling grasses and the hard, red earth, are the bright pinks, yellows , blues and oranges of the wild flowers, as well as the glimpses of deeper blues and whites of our feathered friends, swooping overhead.

As I kneel down to connect with this plant, my digging stick in my hand, I think of all the other people who have dug this plant before me, who have relied on it for a source of food. I know that when I eat it, I am connecting further with this land, this desert. The more wildness I can bring into my body, the closer to the earth I become.  The earth continues to grow and change and live and die without us humans. We are not needed by the earth for its regeneration and well being. The more we use things from the earth, and make deep and meaningful connections, the greater our respect and reverence. As I walked and dug carefully, only harvesting a few plants from each patch, I felt the flowers blooming a little brighter.

In this desert rattlesnakes make their home, as well as mountain lions, coyotes, bighorn sheep and elk, and many other creatures. Plants adapt to only a few inches of rain per year by growing close to the ground and by minimal photosynthesising (hence the abundance of light green plants). Its a blessing to come across open streams and canyons, where the ecosystems change because of the amount of water present. Weaving our way through canyons and meadows, up steep mountains and cliffs, all to find our next source of water, our next source of food, our next place to sleep.

All photos by Steve Leckman.

For more information on bitterroot and desert plants, check out:

Food Plants of Interior First Peoples (Royal British Columbia Museum Handbook) by Nancy J. Turner

Plants of southern interior British Columbia and the inland northwest [Paperback] by Parish, Coupe and Lloyd