Friday, May 31, 2013

The Bitterroot Backstory

Rare, white bitterroot flowers
Our native bitterroot plant took a round-about path from a long-time staple of Native American diets to its "discovery" by white explorers, before it arrived as Montana's official state flower. It's an odd little flower and an odd little story, too - a story that was carried through time by some unusual travelling partners.

Native American names for this diminutive plant include, "Spetlum" and "Nakamtcu." Countless generations of native women have headed into the mountains in early spring to dig and collect the roots, after the plants had grown leaves but before blooming. Today, tribal elders still pass along the centuries-old knowledge that spring bitterroots are the most nutritious, and that the roots grow even more bitter after flowering. And though they were not lost, Montana's natives and bitterroots were both "discovered" by a distant nation intent on expansion - the young United States.

The "undiscovered," western bitterroots were blooming in May and June, 1803, when the east coast's President Thomas Jefferson sent his personal secretary, a distant relative named Meriwether Lewis, to learn botany from Benjamin Barton. Lewis would spend the better part of three years learning botany, map-making, mathematics, anatomy, fossils and medicine from the top American scientists of the day. All of this was preparation for a two-year journey we now call, "The Corps of Discovery."

To assist in this journey, Lewis selected his former commander in the U.S. Army, William Clark. Lewis and Clark and crew traveled the northwest from May 1805 until September 1806, collecting plant and animal specimens, meeting with Native Americans, and mapping the uncharted mountains and rivers - while also serving Jefferson's primary goal of pre-empting the French and Spanish by staking a U.S. claim to northwest territory, which lay west of his new "Louisiana Purchase" lands.

On April 29th, 1805, the Corps of Discovery camped near present-day Fort Peck, having entered into what would eventually become Montana Territory the state of Montana. It was four months later, on August 22nd, when Lewis mentioned the bitterroot plant in his journals for the first time. The corps was camping just west of the continental divide separating modern-day Montana and Idaho. Lewis' initial report is credited with giving this plant it's common name:

"another speceis was much mutilated but appeared to be fibrous; the parts were brittle, hard, of the size of a small quill, cilindric and as white as snow throughout, except some small parts of the hard black rind which they had not seperated in the preperation. this the Indians with me informed were always boiled for use. I made the exp[e]rement, found that they became perfectly soft by boiling, but had a very bitter taste, which was naucious to my pallate, and transfered them to the Indians who had eat them heartily." (August 22nd, 1805)

The only other time Lewis mentioned bitterroot plants in his journals was on July 2nd, 1806, during their return trip from the Pacific Ocean. It was on this date that Lewis collected his first bitterroot specimens, in the area known as "Travellers' Rest," near present day Lolo. Lewis didn't elaborate much:

"I found several other uncommon plants specemines of which I preserved." (July 2nd, 1806)

Lewis' plant specimens were sent back to Jefferson at various times, with the first batch arriving in August, 1805 - almost a year prior to Lewis collecting the bitterroot specimens. The president himself dried the plant specimens and sent them on to Barton, the botanist who had trained Lewis.

Can you even imagine a modern president - or any politician at all - having the knowledge and interest to properly prepare pressed plant specimens? Jefferson was a curious and complicated intellectual, and it was his unusual interest in botany that boosted the bitterroot's backstory.

Jefferson expected Benjamin Barton to describe and catalogue Lewis' plant collection. Jefferson's confidence in Barton, however, was misplaced. While Barton was a top botanist, he also had a long history of not completing projects that he started. Though he'd studied at the University of Edinburgh, Barton returned to the U.S. without a university degree. This didn't prevent him from becoming an academic, lecturing in medicine, natural history and botany. Embarrassed by his lack of credentials, Barton purchased a "Doctor of Medicine" degree 10 years before tutoring Lewis.

It so happened that, as Lewis' plant specimins began arriving in 1805, Barton hired a young Frederick Pursh to work as his part-time plant curator. Two years later, in April, Meriwether Lewis personally met with Pursh in Philadelphia to guide him in preparing a catalogue of the expedition's plant collection. Pursh began working on the project that winter.

Pursh's part-time employment provide for his two weaknesses, wonderlust and alcohol. In 1805 and again in 1806, he set out on foot with his dog to collect plants and ended up exploring over 3,000 miles on each trip. While at work, however, Pursh soon grew disenchanted with Barton, who failed to provide him with enough money to live on. Parsh was also worried with the thought that Barton would get all of the credit for his hard work if and when Lewis' catalogue was published. It didn't help matters that Pursh was also fighting a lifelong battle against serious alcoholism.

"Flora Americae septentrinonalis" (1813)Pursh soon left his position with Barton for a job in New York, then moved to London in 1811, taking most of Lewis' priceless, American plant collection with him. While living in London, Pursh created rancor in the scientific community by publishing Flora Americae septentrinonalis ("Flowers of North America") in 1813, describing 134 of Lewis' plant specimens including, on page 368, one by the name of "Lewisa rediviva Pursh" - the bitterroot. The book was only a modest success.

A few years later, on July 11th, 1820, Pursh died drunk and destitute in Montreal. He never returned the American plants to Lewis, maintaining the division he had created. After his death, botonists gave him a dubious honor by naming a family of plants after him - the "bitterbrush" (Purschia).

In his book, Pursh identified the bitterroot as both a new genus and a new species. He gave it the genus name, Lewisia, to honor the collector. The species name, redivivia, comes with its own backstory. It translates as, "back to life," in reference to a dried root collected by Lewis that sprouted leaves when Pursh planted it in his Philadelphia garden. The resuscitated plant never bloomed for Pursh. Although he had never seen a bitterroot flower first-hand, Pursh made a pretty accurate drawing of the plant based on Lewis' descriptions.

Pursh's bitterroot drawing
One has to wonder what the alcoholic Pursh would have thought about the next turn of events for Lewis' native, "naucious" bitteroot plants.

During the late 1800's, the Women's Christian Temperance Movement (WCTM) formed in Ohio to create a "sober and pure world." The movement expanded its membership by advocating for each state to designate an emblematic flower. In 1891, delegates to the Montana chapter of the WCTM changed their earlier choice and suggested that the bitterroot should become Montana's official state flower.

The process turned formal In January of 1894, when a Bozeman journalist, Mary Alderson, formed the Montana Floral Emblem Association (now known as, Montana Federation of Garden Clubs). Most major towns formed county and community committees to debate which native flower Montana should choose. The issue turned into one of Montana's first state-wide referendums, ushering in a new direction of progressive politics in the state.

The debate spilled over into the pages of local newspapers. Columns described the candidates, and editorials advocated for this or that flower. An 1894 editorial in the Helena Independent argued that the bitterroot, "has one quality which should be fatal to it as a state emblem. It has no stem...." Without a stem, they decried, the bitterroot couldn't be worn as a boutonniere or made into a bouquet.

To settle the matter, ballots were sent out and voting was concluded on September 1st, 1894. A total of 5,857 votes were cast for more than 32 different flowers. The bitterroot won hands down, with 3,621 votes. Evening primrose came in a distant second (787 votes) and the wild rose landed in third place (668 votes). The bitterroot only grows in western parts of Montana, but it won in 10 of the 15 counties that voted.

And so it came to be that on February 27th, 1895, the Montana state legislature designated the bitterroot as our official state flower, without a single dissenting vote.

Behind the bitterroots: I haven't read it yet, but one of the last of the old-time Rangers in Glacier Nat. Park, Jerry DeSanto, filled an entire book with the backstory on bitterroots. "Bitterroot: Montana State Flower" is now out of print, but you can still finds copies floating around if you look hard enough. Anything written by one of the old-school guys should be an interesting read.

Bitterroot flower (c) John Ashley
Bitterroot in bloom (c) John Ashley