11 June 2007

In Praise of Bitterroots (and other Late Spring Wildflowers of the Northern Rockies)

Well, here it is, well into June. The weather is spring-crazy, with snow one day and 70 deg F the next, and it has been exceptionally wet. The wildflowers love it, and I have never seen the bitterroots especially produce so many blooms.

In this view, you can see why they are locally known to the old-timers as "rock roses:"

For some years, I did not recognize the bitterroot plant. The flowers would show up in late June or early July (they are exceptionally early this year around my home at c. 6100 feet elevation), but the leaves had long died away. The rosettes of leaves are beautiful in and of themselves, as in this photo from late April:
Then, the leaves gradually die away (07 May):
The buds form (24 May):

And swell and multiply (01 June):

And then, one day, there is a tentative half-opened flower (04 June):

Soon followed by many, many more:

What joy as the lovely blooms paint the most desolate and dry slopes. Bitterroots (Lewisia rediviva) were an important staple of the native peoples in this region, and one of several root crops that helped keep the Lewis & Clark party from starvation.

Also in bloom, the lodgepole pines:

Whack a branch with your walking stick and watch the thick, rich pollen roll out into the still morning air. Ah, sex in the open air:

There is a worm in this garden. Well, they have to eat too--like this writhing mass of tent caterpillars on the old apple tree:

Just over the divide, on the wet, lush meadows of the upper Big Hole river, the blue camas light up the prarie. A large concentration of them looks like a sea of blue when viewed at a low angle from a distance:

The single stalks are lovely up close, too:

With their companion, the bistort:

Blue camas (Camassia quamash) roots, even more of a staple than bitterroots, were the bread of the Nez Perce and Salish. A maiden was judged, in part, by how many baskets of roots she could gather in a day. By steaming the roots, Indians converted their indigestible insulin sugars to readily digestible starches. By pounding and drying the roots in thin sheets (often flavored with other roots or berries), they could be preserved in earthen vessels for a year or more. When the US Army destroyed the Nez Perce caches of bitterroot, it helped lead to war.

Bistort (Bistorta bistortoides = Polygonum bistortoides) , sometimes called snakeroot, was also an important herb--used as food, as an herbal decoction for various illnesses, and as a poultice for wounds.

No comments: