Historic St. Mary's
Mission & Museum
est. 1841

Historic Brand of St. Mary's Mission - Cross on a Hill
406-777-5734
stmary@cybernet1.com
P.O. Box 211
315 Charlo Street
Stevensville, MT 59870

The Bitterroot Flower
A white Bitterroot in bloom
Lewis and Clark are credited with the "discovery" of the Bitterroot plant (Lewisia Rediviva) in the Montana valley which was eventually named after it. It was known as Spetlum to the Native American peoples and had been an important part of their diet for unknown generations. The tribe's spring migrations were timed to coincide with the blooming of the Bitterroot flower and often scouts would be sent out to alert the tribe to the readiness of the plant for harvesting.

  • Indian women dug, cleaned and boiled the root of the plant and then mixed it with meat or berries.
  • Hunting expeditions and war parties often carried patties made from a mixture of pulverized root, deer fat and moss.
  • At trading centers a sackful of Bitterroot commanded a high price and could often be traded for a horse.

The species name rediviva refers to the hardiness of the plant.  A Bitterroot can live for over a year without water and is usually found growing in gravelly, dry soil.  It is a low-growing perennial with a fleshy taproot and has a branched base. In May and June a single flower will appear on each stem ranging in color from white to a deep pink or rose. When mature the flower produces egg-shaped capsules which contain 6-20 nearly round seeds.
September 24, 1841, Father Pierre Jean DeSmet, together with his fellow Jesuit missionaries, Fathers Gregory Mengarini and Nicolas Point, and three Lay Brothers arrived in the Bitterroot valley. The mission they built, as well as the river and the tallest mountain peak to the west , were named "St. Mary's". The name of the river was changed to "Bitterroot" by the Forest Service many years later.

Today, three major geographic features owe their name to the Bitterroot. The Bitterroot Mountains that run north-south and form the divide between Montana and Idaho, the Bitterroot River and the Bitterroot Valley. Businesses throughout the state employ the name of the beloved state symbol, the Bitterroot flower.

Bitterroots blooming in the sandy hills
When it came time to choose a state flower the lovely Bitterroot met with opposition. An editorial in the Helena Independent stated that the Bitterroot “has one quality which should be fatal to it as a state emblem. It has no stem . . . and the leaves and flower grow out of the top of a thick, fleshy, spindle-shaped root.”  The editors further argued that it's qualities made the flower difficult to pick and it couldn't be made into a bouquet or be used as a boutonniere.

3,621 Montanans disagreed and voted in favor of the Bitterroot with the evening primrose and the wild rose taking a distant second and third. Thus the 1895 legislature designated the Bitterroot the offical state flower of Montana.


The major credit for the addition of the Bitterroot to Montana's list of official symbols belongs to Mary Long Alderson who spear-headed the effort to have the Bitterroot named the state flower.
A Bitterroot plant in bloom