The bitterroot flower is the Montana state flower, named for Captain Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The genus name, Lewisia, honors Lewis for his collection of the first specimens of this species during his exploration of the American West. The bitterroot was common knowledge to the indigenous peoples of Montana, who had uses for this plant long before it became the state flower.
Bitterroot is a low-growing plant that rarely exceeds a foot in height. It develops from a fleshy taproot and produces shortened stalks on which the pink flowers blossom. The leaves of the plant develop in late summer and stay evergreen through the harsh winter months. The leaves will wither up and die before the flower blooms. The flower has about 15 petals, which encompass numerous stamens. The flowers can be as wide as 2 inches.
Mary Long Anderson of Bozeman, Montana began a campaign in 1893 to have the bitterroot flower designated as the state floral symbol. Her efforts led to an official election that involved as many as 37 different types of flowers in the late summer of 1894, according to Netstate.com. The results were 3,621 votes cast for the bitterroot, easily outdistancing the second-place evening primrose, which received 787 votes. On February 27, 1895, the Montana Legislature made the bitterroot the official state flower.
The bitterroot flowers between May and July throughout most of its range. It also grows in British Columbia in Canada and into Washington State, Oregon, California, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado. It grows in rocky dry soil in Montana, typically in the lower elevations of mountains and in the plains. The flower produces as many as 20 shiny dark brownish seeds.
Any attempts to grow bitterroot flowers will prove difficult, but your best chance will be in a rock garden scenario. Place the seeds or divided root sections in partial shade where the soil has excellent drainage. A common problem with bitterroot is that the taproot easily rots when exposed to even moderate amounts of water. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center says that moisture is important to the plant only when it blossoms. Bitterroot requires dry soil after it goes dormant.
The root of the plant provided food to many Native Americans and the Montana Plant Life website states that it is very high in nutritional value. The roots turn soft once you boil them and become much larger than their original size. You may store the root for as long as two years, which can take some of the bitterness from it that gives the species its name. Bitterroot has some medicinal qualities. The root has the ability to increase the flow of milk secretions in nursing women.