Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) may not sound appetizing, but the flowering perennial has long been a staple in the diet and medicinal practices of northern Native American tribes. From its ability to provide essential nutrients to its ornamental purple-pink blossoms, the many uses of bitterroot led Montana legislators to make it the state flower in 1895.
Bitterroot was an important source of nutrition for many Native Americans. Approximately 50 to 80 grams, or one to three ounces, of boiled bitterroot provided enough energy to sustain an active person for up to 24 hours, according to Montana Plant Life. As the name suggests, the outer layer of the root has an off-putting bitter flavor. When harvested in spring when the plant is flowering, this outer shell can be easily removed. Native Americans usually boiled the shelled root for the most palatable flavor, often alongside berries or meat. When boiled, the root would swell to six times its original size and develop a jelly-like texture. The boiled root was then eaten as is, or dried and ground into a powder used to either thicken soups or mix with animal fat to create patties.
In addition to being consumed as a food, bitterroot was also ingested by the Native American community for its medicinal benefits. New mothers often drank a tea-like infusion from the raw root in order to increase milk production when nursing infants. Additionally, it was eaten to purify the blood, clear up skin conditions, treat the symptoms of diabetes and to settle an upset stomach. According to the Native American Center for Excellence at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, the root has even been known as "Indian Tums" because, like the popular over-the-counter antacid, it has the ability to calm the stomach."
Bitterroot was once widely used to numb certain types of pain. American Indians relied on a bitterroot infusion to alleviate discomfort caused by heart conditions like angina as well as pleurisy, a painful inflammation in the area around the lungs. The root was applied to relieve the burning itch and inflammation caused by poison ivy. Even today, some American Indians still chew the dried root to numb the pain of a sore throat, according to ABC News Health. It's been speculated that the sore throat relief may come from the increase in saliva when the root is chewed.
Like many plants in the Portulacaceae family, bitterroot is cultivated for ornamental purposes. In fact, members of the Lewisia genus are some of the most popular native plants grown in the western United States. Bitterroot is prized by many home gardeners for its delicate, silky pink petals and ability to grow in the rockiest of soils. With growing interest in gardens that conserve water, it is also renowned for its extreme tolerance to drought. Thanks to the water-holding ability of its roots, bitterroot can thrive for years without irrigation; however, one instance of overwatering can kill a plant.