Rooted in Respect
Gathering Bitterroot, Past and Present
By Shane Sater
When I first ate bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva), in April 2020, I did so with profound hesitation. I hesitated not because of the plant's reputation for bitterness, but because harvesting it meant killing it. I had been reading about bitterroot for years, and I had encountered it several times before: each plant a circle of fleshy green leaves, pressed against rocky grassland soil. I knew it as a traditional staple food for the Salish, Kootenai, and Blackfeet, the Native people on whose lands I live. And I had read and reread forager Tom Elpel's warning about gathering it: "Please harvest bitterroots only in places of extreme abundance. It would be easy to overharvest the plant in many localities" (127-128). Bitterroot was different from all of the wild plants I had gathered before. This was not a case of just picking fruits or pinching off a few leaves, leaving the plant to keep growing. If I dug and ate the edible taproots of the bitterroot, each plant I harvested would die. And this was not just any plant, but one of the most important to the Native people of my area.
So at the end of April, I sat with discomfort among cow pies, short tufts of Sandberg bluegrass, and fleshy green bitterroot rosettes - a discomfort which had nothing to do with the stony soil. I had the feeling that to disrespect this plant would be to commit sacrilege. I had the feeling that for me to gather this plant at all, even with great respect and care, might be an offense against the Native people of this land. The history of Euro-Americans settling here has been one of incredible stealing from indigenous societies. Settlers and their governments have stolen land and stolen livelihoods, repressed language and culture, torn families apart. Was I stealing as well, by gathering such a culturally important plant? I sat with the weight of the choice and no clear answers came to me. But clumsily, I spoke to the plants, explaining why I had come and asking their permission. I asked to gather a few roots, to learn, to do so with care for the continued thriving of the bitterroots and with respect for the generations of cultural history held in the act of digging these plants. Their answer seemed hesitant, too, and perhaps I just imagined it. But I felt that the plants were willing to give me a chance.
I pushed the chokecherry digging stick into the moist earth and eased out the first root. As long as my index finger, it forked into several pencil-diameter branches. The bark peeled off easily, a dark brown outer layer and a striking reddish inner skin. Beneath it, the root was gleaming white, tinged with orange. It felt smooth and supple, without the tough fibers of a thistle or burdock. I tentatively chewed a section. It seemed starchy and mild, with a faint bitterness. The succulent green leaves looked appetizing, so I nibbled one of them - intensely bitter! I did not nibble a second leaf. I gathered roughly fifteen roots, choosing large rosettes growing next to several smaller ones, trying to thin the population and to always leave living plants close to those I dug. The taproots varied in size and form. Some had multiple branches and were time-consuming to peel, while others were larger in diameter and branched just once. I left most of the patch untouched and started walking out, still feeling the weight of my choice.
I walked with the awareness that I was travelling across a landscape filled with culturally important plants, the living sentinels of ancient ways of life, ways which continue to the present. Two streams flow past these rocky hills, each bordered by stands of willow and aspen. Under these trees are lush patches of cow parsnip and stinging nettle, traditional spring greens for many tribes (Moerman). Patches of wild mint grow nearby, and there is a variety of shrubs that offer summer and fall fruits: golden currant, bristly gooseberry, serviceberry, and chokecherry. Twisted groves of limber pine grow on the rocky ridgelines, providing large pine nuts at the end of the summer
In the hilly grassland, growing out of the ancient quartzite and shale, bitterroot is not the only root food here. Thousands of yellowbells nod in the breeze on the cooler north and east slopes, each growing from a small, crisp, tasty underground corm. Swathes of white-flowered Lomatium macrocarpum cover some of the moister aspects, hinting at the aromatic roots underneath. Lomatium triternatum seems rarer here, but its delicate leaves and small yellow flowers sometimes pop up right at the edges of boulders. Bitterroot grows most commonly here on stony ridgelines and in areas disturbed by cows, while nodding onions join it on one south-facing slope.
I had recently read about the importance of these spring root foods in the traditional diets of the Blackfeet and Kootenai. ("Root foods" include not only true roots, but also a variety of modified underground stems and leaves, such as tubers and bulbs, for storing energy.) Both tribes have long traditions of gathering bitterroot, yellowbells, Lomatium species, and nodding onion (Pikunni Traditional Association; Kootenai Culture Committee). In fact, the spring harvest of roots is an important part of traditional cultures across much of the west. Hundreds of miles away on the mid-Columbia Plateau, Sahaptin-speaking peoples traditionally harvested large quantities of bitterroot, yellowbells, and Lomatium as well (Hunn). And ethnobotanist M. Kat Anderson documents the importance of these and many other root foods for California Native people.
All these root foods are geophytes: plants that survive harsh conditions by storing energy underground and going seasonally dormant. Anderson writes that the geophyte lifestyle is an adaptation for "long, dry summers... [as well as] poor soil conditions, herbivory, and fire" (291). In Montana, these plants photosynthesize and flower in the spring and early summer, while the grassland is moist from snowmelt and the often-plentiful May and June rains. But by August the soil is dry and the geophytes have retreated underground, evident only by their dry seed clusters and dead leaf remnants.
As I brought the bitterroots home, my conscience kept nagging me, wondering if I had caused harm by taking these plants. Fifteen plants for one small meal. The roots that I had peeled dried quickly, becoming brittle and snapping easily. I remembered reading of a traditional dish with berries, meat, and bitterroot, so I boiled them with dried serviceberries and added ground beef. This dish was savory, sweet, and mildly bitter. The bitterroots seemed to complement the meat and berries, lending carbohydrates and complexity of flavor to the broth. Tasting it, I found it easy to imagine these plants as a staple food. But I had killed fifteen plants for just a snack. Fifteen plants of major cultural importance to the people of this land. Was there a sustainable way to gather these plants?
At face value, it may seem obvious that gathering geophytes is destructive. If a plant must die for people to eat it, it seems like a zero-sum relationship: as humans gain, plants lose. But in fact, just because an individual plant must die for us to eat it does not necessarily mean that our harvesting is bad for the species. Carrots (Daucus carota) provide a familiar domesticated example. Like bitterroots, carrot plants die when we harvest and eat their taproots. But as long as we leave sufficient carrots somewhere to go to seed and we replant them the next year, our carrot harvest does not jeopardize the survival of the species. Indeed, more carrots arguably grow because of our fondness for their roots. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, U.S. farmers planted 76,000 acres of carrots in 2015. They cultivated the soil, removed competing plants, provided additional water, and allowed the plants to reach a much higher density than they ever would have without this human fondness for their roots.
Of course, growing carrots in cultivation is unquestionably a poor analogy for gathering wild geophytes. Cultivated carrots are commodities: plants grown only where people want them, exchanged for money, and bought for dinner. Industrial carrots grow in vast monocultures, carefully cultivated, irrigated, fertilized, and controlled (Kelly and Phatak). Bitterroot is not a commodity. It is an incredibly hardy wild plant that can persist without human help in cold, rocky, dry grasslands where carrots would never stand a chance. It grows not in monocultures, but in diverse plant communities that provide habitat for insects and animals. Humans may affect the dynamics of these systems, but we are not in control.
Accordingly, the relationship between people and bitterroot is far different. The place where I gathered these plants is within traditional Salish territory, which extends across a vast portion of western and central Montana (Rockwell). Salish scientist Mitchell Rose Bear Don't Walk writes, "plant relatives are never to be used for personal profit or monetary gain" (46). She warns, "The day that Salish plant knowledge becomes exploited and plants are mistreated, plants will turn away from us" (137). Bitterroots are plants as relatives rather than plants as commodities. In this way, this relationship is a polar opposite of the modern carrot industry.
Carrots and bitterroots also differ in their ecology. Carrots are biennial: each individual plant lives only two years before dying. Forager Sam Thayer writes that biennials tend to produce much more seed than longer-lived species. Because of their short life cycle, they also grow back more quickly after a substantial harvest, as long as some are left to produce seed. In contrast, bitterroots are perennials with just single underground energy storage organs. Thayer notes that plants like this comprise the group "most susceptible to overharvest" (17). They tend to grow slowly, live long, and produce fewer seeds than biennials. "Although often numerous, such species can be easily overharvested because they reproduce so slowly," writes Thayer (17).
Clearly, wild geophytes like bitterroot are very different from carrots. Yet in spite of these differences, the story of carrots may still remain instructive in one way. It is an easy-to-understand example of a plant for which harvest can be done without destroying the species. Could the same be true for bitterroot? In fact, given the deeply respectful gathering relationship of which Bear Don't Walk writes, is it even more likely that gathering of this plant, when done in this traditional way, could be sustainable?
For geophytes in general, there is a substantial body of evidence suggesting that traditional gathering can help sustain or even increase their populations. In many cases, even the simple act of harvesting can create a loose seedbed where more geophytes can grow. "[D]isturbing the soil can create favorable conditions to expand the populations of many root crops," writes foraging author Tom Elpel. "I do not know if this is the case with bitterroots" (128).
In recent decades, ethnobotanists have begun to recognize something that Native people have known for generations: professional hunter-gatherers managed many (if not all) of the geophytes they harvested to sustain or increase them. In California, ethnobotanist M. Kat Anderson documents specific traditional practices used to encourage several species, including brodiaea, soaproot, and yampah. She points out that Native people traditionally used (and in many cases still do use) a variety of techniques to encourage geophytes, including leaving some plants, helping seeds or small vegetative propagules disperse, weeding, and using fire to reduce competition. These strategies "not only ensured the reproduction of the target species but often enhanced the vitality and size of their populations," Anderson concludes (293). In an experiment modeled after indigenous harvesting of the geophyte Dichelostemma capitatum, Anderson and her colleague David Rowney found that harvesting half of the plants each year did not significantly reduce their populations compared to the non-harvest control. And in his documentation of Coast Salish harvest of camas (Camassia spp.) and other root foods, Wayne Suttles definitively states, "If loosening the soil while digging and burning afterward count as 'tending,' then tending was practiced widely in Western North America. The harvesting process no doubt loosened the soil, which would have increased production" (187).
Many ethnographies include observations of geophytes thriving more when harvested than when untended. Describing regularly harvested camas beds on Vancouver Island, an indigenous elder told Suttles that "There was no grass then, because the patches were cared for" (181). Similar observations seem to appear again and again with various geophytes in various regions. In central California, contemporary Mono/Yokuts gatherer Barbara Bill notes, "We harvest the soaproot [Chlorogalum pomeridianum] and break them off at the roots so the roots grow into new plants. I've noticed they grow a lot more in the areas where we gather it" (Anderson, 299). In northern Montana, bulbs of spring beauty (Claytonia lanceolata) are a traditional spring food for the Blackfeet. According to Blackfeet culture-bearer Darnell Rides at the Door, the edible roots have decreased in size as gathering has stopped. "They're smaller because they are no longer in relationship with people; they're not being harvested," she finds (Pikunni Traditional Association, 148).
A more recent anecdote of respectful gathering also corroborates these accounts. Foraging authors Tom Elpel and Kris Reed recount an interview with wilderness survival expert Larry Olsen:
I used to take my classes out to a place called West Mountain and there was a hillside out there that was just lush with biscuit root and sego lilies and fritillary bulbs. There were seven or eight different bulbs you could dig out there. And I would take a class of thirty or forty people at a time, and sometimes three or four sections of those and have a hundred people out there, all with their digging sticks, digging on that hillside. I pretty well let them randomly go through but always with the caution that if you are digging a little patch here, always leave two or three. Don't dig all of them; leave some of them. They were pretty respectful for [sic] that. Then I began to notice after the third year of doing this using the same area that every year they'd come up just as thick or thicker. And by the third year we began to notice that the bulbs were bigger and better. And after eight years of working that same ground every spring, we were getting that little thing they call the Indian potato that was usually as big around as the joint in your little finger, they were now as big as onion bulbs." (118-119)
But what about bitterroot? Can similar gathering practices help sustain this plant, or even help its populations increase? On the land where I gathered it, I estimated that there were at least 10,000 bitterroot plants growing patchily over two square miles of grassland. Presumably, if my harvest of fifteen negatively affected the population, the effect was small. But a harvest of fifteen is not even enough for a full meal. The question of sustainability remains essential to any understanding of bitterroot as a staple food. Can harvesting practices actually maintain or expand bitterroot populations? Or is gathering always bad, but tolerable at low levels?
Ethnographies and historical observations agree that Native people customarily visited favored bitterroot gathering sites every year. In his work with the Nlaka'pamux people of southern British Columbia, Robert Bandringa describes visiting seven traditional harvesting sites that have been used for generations. In western Montana, Mitchell Rose Bear Don't Walk records that traditional bitterroot grounds included the place where the city of Missoula now sits, as well as much of the Flathead Valley. In addition, naturalist Jerry DeSanto reports gathering sites north of Hamilton, in the Tobacco Plains area, and in the Little Bitterroot Valley. He describes an account of a Salish woman in the 1940s who continued to dig bitterroot at the same place where she had been doing so every spring for about 75 years. Yet if traditional harvesting depleted bitterroot patches, it would make no sense for people to return to the same spots year after year. These observations alone suggest that traditional indigenous harvest techniques and intensities were sustainable.
Yet could harvesting have been sustainable simply because Native people were so few and had such a light impact on the landscape? DeSanto suggests this view in his discussion of the traditional harvest: "Bitterroot... was not severely diminished by the annual gathering at select sites by relatively few users" (5). This idea reflects a broader assumption that remains pervasive in our society: indigenous cultures lived with minimal impacts to the landscape around them. At face value, this assumption may seem persuasive. After all, hunter-gatherers lived at much lower population densities than those of us in industrial society. Surely their impacts would have been small.
Yet this conflicts with the abundant ethnographic, ecological, and historical evidence summarized by researchers such as M. Kat Anderson. This evidence - which includes geophyte tending but extends far beyond, to other plants and to entire habitats and regions - indicates that Native people profoundly changed the character of the landscape through management practices, encouraging certain species and habitats. In this view, the "pristine" landscapes, old-growth forests, rich soils, and abundant wildlife that settlers encountered in western North America were not natural, but were largely a result of indigenous practices such as burning and selective harvesting.
In the case of bitterroot, I decided to test the "low impact hypothesis" by estimating the magnitude of traditional bitterroot harvests. Ethnobotanist Jeff Hart reports that Kootenai women "often worked three or four days to fill a fifty-pound sack [with dried bitterroot]. Each woman gathered at least two sacks, enough to sustain two people through the winter" (100). How many bitterroot plants are there in 100 pounds? In his master's thesis on bitterroot ethnobotany, Robert Bandringa reports an average dry weight of 0.502 grams for a peeled bitterroot, based on measurements of 220 individual roots. This comes out to 903 dried bitterroots per pound. A single Kootenai family would have harvested over 90,000 bitterroot plants per year - nine times the total number of plants I estimated in the grassland where I harvested!
Is this number credible from a caloric point of view? Norton and others report an energy value of 3.89 kcal/g for dry bitterroot roots. This is similar to a figure of 3.43 kcal/g cited by Kuhnlein and Turner. Averaging those measurements to 3.66 kcal/g, the annual Kootenai harvest would represent 166,000 kilocalories per family. I borrowed an average daily caloric need of 2,267 kilocalories per person from Hunn and others' consideration of traditional Plateau diets and calculated that 100 pounds of dried bitterroot represent 73 calorie-days of energy for one person. If winter in Montana lasts from November through March (a conservative characterization), then an average person would require about 340,000 kilocalories over this five-month period. If two people shared 100 pounds of bitterroot, it would represent about 24% of their caloric intake during this period. This number seems within the range of believability.
Yet the Kootenai harvest may well be a lower bound for annual harvest by Plateau groups. According to the Kootenai Culture Committee, "most areas had only scattered plants" (85). Meanwhile, Jeff Hart claims that the Bitterroot Valley, in the traditional territory of the Salish people, was "the best bitterroot ground in the region" (97). This suggests that Salish harvests may have been more extensive than those of the Kootenai.
Writing about bitterroot in the Thompson River valley of southern British Columbia, Robert Bandringa provides an interesting report suggesting the plant's historical abundance. He quotes botanist John Davidson, who wrote the following in 1916: "The bitter-root region covers several square miles of open undulating country. The plants are present in the millions; at one point twenty-two plants were counted on one square foot of ground. Over large areas one finds an average of twelve plants per square foot" (97-98). Assuming an average of twelve plants per square foot over three square miles, I calculated that Davidson documented slightly over one billion bitterroot plants in this area. Bandringa notes that descriptions by Nlaka'pamux elders also point to an "irrefutable and dumbfounding" abundance of bitterroot in this valley.
Bandringa does not attempt to guess at historical bitterroot harvests per family in the Thompson valley, simply noting that "the size of the 100 pound white flour sacks" used for harvest in later years suggests the quantities were large (34). However, in their ethnobotany of the Sahaptin-speaking peoples of the mid-Columbia Plateau, Hunn and others provide two estimates of bitterroot harvests that are substantially higher than the figure for the Kootenai. For the Umatilla, they suggest an annual harvest of 4008 pounds per family (109). They apparently base this astounding number on an experienced woman digging roots eight hours per day for 60 days in order to provide for a family of four, at the rate of 8.4 pounds per hour (Hunn et al.; Hunn and French). Later, in the budget for a "Sample Traditional Plateau Diet," they estimate an average of 1.1 pounds of bitterroot per person per day. This translates to just over 400 pounds per person annually, or 1600 pounds for a family of four.
However, from Hunn and others' caloric analysis, it is clear that, in both of these estimates, they are describing fresh bitterroots rather than dried ones. They use a caloric value of 0.9 kcal/g, a value that is one quarter of that reported for dried bitterroots. This value exactly matches that reported by Hilty and others for fresh bitterroots and also corresponds closely to the fresh weight of 0.94 kcal/g listed by Kuhnlein and Turner. Assuming that the caloric value of an individual bitterroot does not change as it dries, and that differences in caloric density are solely a function of water loss, I converted these fresh weights into dry weights using a reduction factor of 4.07. Once again using 907 bitterroots per pound dry weight, Hunn and others' two different estimates translate to annual harvests of roughly 900,000 or 350,000 bitterroot plants per family. In other words, they project that some Plateau groups may have harvested up to ten times as much bitterroot as the Kootenai.
Admittedly, these numbers are far from precise. It is also important to note that Bandringa dried his root samples in an oven for 72 hours after an initial sun-drying, so these average weights may be less than those of traditionally dried roots. For example, if average weights of sun-dried roots were 1.0 g instead of the 0.5 g figure Bandringa measured, my estimates for total numbers of plants harvested would need to be halved. But the basic conclusion is inescapable: Native people across the Columbia Plateau harvested immense quantities of bitterroots each year, with rough estimates ranging from 90,000 to 900,000 roots per family. And although massive, this harvest was sustainable. People visited the same bitterroot places every spring for generations. In the Thompson River valley, Bandringa notes that the bitterroot harvest was a time of communal gathering. The Nlaka'pamux "would generally remain for two or more days and up to a week in one harvesting location, for as some elders shared, there used to be so much bitterroot that moving from place to place too often was unnecessary" (Bandringa, 46). And although the Nlaka'pamux gathered bitterroot for generations, their management techniques were so successful that botanist John Davidson found over a billion bitterroot plants in the Thompson valley in the early 1900s.
Since that time, bitterroot in the valley has declined substantially. In 1999, Bandringa sampled vegetation and counted bitterroot plants in 63 meter-square quadrats across seven traditional harvesting sites. He documented an average of 1.5 and a maximum of 7.3 bitterroots per square foot: a steep decline from Davidson's average of 12 plants per square foot in the early 1900s. Even if bitterroots still occupied several square miles, as Davidson had originally observed, the change in density represents a loss of over 85% of the population. But Bandringa's maximum estimate for the combined area of the seven patches was 18.5 hectares - less than a tenth of a square mile. Though Bandringa was not trying to comprehensively survey remaining bitterroot populations in the valley, it appears that the area occupied by patches has shrunk manyfold. "The small, localised harvesting areas that remain are few and even they are becoming eroded... many Nlaka'pamux view bitterroot as now locally threatened if not endangered," Bandringa writes (98).
At the same time that local bitterroot populations have plunged, traditional harvesting has dwindled as the industrial economy has changed diets and some private landowners have locked out Nlaka'pamux gatherers. Could the decline of bitterroot be linked to the loss of traditional gathering? And could these very harvesting techniques be a key to restoring populations of the species? I think again of the 10,000 bitterroots I estimated growing across the grassland where I harvested this spring. Are these plants also the remnants of a once more-extensive patch? Could traditional gathering practices encourage more bitterroot here?
In order to consider how traditional harvesting affects bitterroot, it is essential to understand the plant's ecology. For this I rely heavily on the careful observations and experiments of ecologist Rexford Daubenmire. Bitterroot is a plant of cold weather, surviving the hot, dry grassland summer by retreating underground. Indeed, Daubenmire observes that this species generally has "a growing season entirely contained within the frost season" (18). Leaves begin to grow in the fall, signalled by cool temperatures, which usually coincide with the first fall rains or snows. Throughout the winter, tight rosettes of fleshy bitterroot leaves hug the moist earth, gradually elongating. Daubenmire notes that the plant "seems to be completely immune to low-temperature injury" (22). In April, as the sun strengthens, the leaves grow to their full size. At this point, flower buds begin to emerge. Yet as the buds develop, the leaves shorten. When the plant flowers in late spring or early summer, the leaves have become "usually no more than short vertical stubs beneath the conspicuous flowers" (19). There are typically just a few flowers per plant, but individuals growing in a garden without competition can produce up to eleven. The blooms are showy but unscented, resembling pink roses growing just above the surface of the stony earth. Daubenmire notes that the bloom period on a single plant can be more than three weeks. However, each individual flower is only open for two days. Bees seem to be the primary pollinators, but the plant produces no nectar rewards. According to Daubenmire, most bees land briefly on the flowers and move on, apparently unsatisfied. Other bees show much more interest and spend time gathering pollen dust from the stamens and the surrounding petals. Once pollinated, a flower closes and bends over, resting on the surface of the earth. Seeds develop rapidly - up to 62 of them. Only three weeks after pollination, the dried flower drops from the plant. No longer a rosy attractant for bees, it has become a biological sailboat: an open cup of papery, straw-colored sepals holding a cargo of shiny black seeds.
Perhaps a discarded grocery bag is a better analogy, for like a bag and unlike a sailboat, these dispersal structures are sensitive to very light winds. "A breeze barely strong enough to pick up an average dry leaf would carry a disseminule easily," writes Daubenmire. As winds gust across the grasslands, the dry bitterroot flowers roll along or take flight. One by one, seeds disembark with the chaotic motion, hopefully landing in sites suitable for growth. Piles of flowers tend to accumulate where they catch against vegetation or rough surfaces. According to Forest Service researcher Janet Howard, a study in Idaho found that bitterroot seed densities under the mat-forming plant Eriogonum ovalifolium were 75 times higher than seed densities on bare ground. Presumably a variety of mat-forming plants may catch the wind-blown flowers and their passengers.
Daubenmire reports that seeds in eastern Washington germinate in November after experiencing cool, moist conditions. The two cotyledons ("seed leaves") are succulent and elongated. They are shorter than the leaves of the adult plants, which have again re-emerged by this point in the fall. By the following spring, Daubenmire notes that each seedling has developed several additional leaves and the tap root has reached a diameter of 2.5 mm at the top. He also illustrates a two-year-old plant whose tap root has grown to a diameter of about 5 mm.
Daubenmire describes bitterroot as a "long-lived perennial" (18); however, I was unable to find any specific information on the age of mature plants. Daubenmire notes that the caudex (the short, underground stem, just below the rosette of leaves and above the roots) may reach three centimeters in diameter on old plants, which suggests considerable age. It is also unclear how old plants must be before they first flower.
Across the west, Native people traditionally harvest bitterroot in the spring using a digging stick. This implement is made of a hard material such as an antler or serviceberry wood and often bears a horizontal crosspiece as a handle for leverage (Bandringa; Kootenai Culture Committee; Rockwell). Forager Kyle Chamberlain reports that this tool is very effective for digging bitterroot: "In the right soil, one can effortlessly pry them from the ground in a single motion." Moreover, Robert Bandringa notes that a digging stick allows for a much more precise selective harvest than a shovel. He quotes Nlaka'pamux Chief Leslie Edmonds: "[with a digging stick] you just take the one that you want and leave all the little ones around it alone. If you leave the little ones alone you will have some for the years after" (42).
As far as I know, Bandringa's account of Nlaka'pamux harvest practices is by far the most detailed written record available of traditional bitterroot gathering methods. The Nlaka'pamux time the harvest carefully: plants should have well-developed leaf rosettes as well as flower buds, but should not be flowering yet. The emerging leaves on the chokecherries and the blooming of the serviceberry bushes help to indicate the season. At any particular site, the harvest window is about two weeks. However, this varies with elevation (and presumably aspect as well), so that it is possible to harvest bitterroots over an eight-week period between various populations. Like other tribes, the Nlaka'pamux peel bitterroot to remove the brown, protective coat from the root. Nlaka'pamux elders told Bandringa that plants harvested too early or too late are bitter and much harder to peel. He writes that the roots are easiest to peel when the flower buds are just beginning to appear. The Nlaka'pamux also remove an orange "heart" from the interior of the caudex at the top of the root: this part is said to be bitter. People traditionally dry the peeled roots in the sun. According to Bandringa, the dried roots are "reported to never spoil" (38).
The Nlaka'pamux historically began the bitterroot harvest with a First Roots ceremony. In contemporary times this practice has ceased, though Nlaka'pamux gatherers still pray on an individual basis before digging. Like the Nlaka'pamux First Roots ceremony, community-based practices of gratitude for bitterroot are common across the interior west. Eugene Hunn notes that Sahaptin groups perform a thanksgiving ceremony before beginning the bitterroot harvest. The Kootenai Culture Committee describes the traditional Kootenai bitterroot honoring: "After the first bitterroot had been ceremoniously gathered by the lead woman and prayers had been said, the first bitterroot was peeled and turned over to the leader, who carried it back with her to be placed in the chief's lodge. When this annual ritual had been completed, the women were free to dig roots for their family's use" (85). In 1993, Jerry DeSanto reported that the Salish people in Montana still conducted a First Roots ceremony associated with their bitterroot harvest. Mitchell Rose Bear Don't Walk writes that this traditional yearly harvest continues today.
According to Robert Bandringa, practices like the Nlaka'pamux First Roots ceremony support "a conscience of accountability and responsibility on a personal and corporate level" (89). The traditions of gratitude for bitterroot, so common across its range, remind people to care for this plant and pay attention to its well-being. The First Roots ceremony is a clear manifestation of the respect surrounding this plant.
What does this respect look like "on the ground"? Selective harvest, always leaving some plants in a patch, seems to be the most common guidance. Nlaka'pamux elder Saraphine Kirkpatrick remembers, "the Indians never cleaned it all out, just leave some here and there.... They leave some, some small, they leave it; they don't take it all. They just leave it just to retransplant themselves. But if you take it all, it is all gone" (Bandringa, 32). As discussed earlier, a digging stick is a well-designed tool for this purpose, allowing efficient harvest of individual plants while leaving others nearby. Robert Bandringa also notes that Nlaka'pamux gatherers choose patches where bitterroot is abundant, passing over spots with fewer plants. Maria Minnabarriet told him of her grandmother's observation that bitterroot, when less dense, is "hiding from you" and wants to be left in place (34). The practice of leaving sparsely growing plants makes sense for conservation and also for efficient harvesting.
The Nlaka'pamux also remember tribal members transplanting bitterroot plants. This happened before 1900. People gathered bitterroot from rather distant sites (some of them over 30 kilometers away), stored the roots in a dry pit over the summer, and then replanted them in the fall with the first rains or snows (Bandringa). This intentional transplanting may have contributed to the former abundance of the plant in the Thompson Valley. Saraphine Kirkpatrick told Bandringa that "if you transplant it, it flowers and multiply [sic]" (43). The Nlaka'pamux also note that the orange "heart" removed from the caudex will regrow if planted. According to Bandringa, the Nlaka'pamux do not currently practice replanting the hearts, nor do they record a tradition of doing so. I do not know of any published information confirming that the hearts grow when planted. However, this is remarkably similar to a continuing Salish practice, according to Mitchell Rose Bear Don't Walk. "When the roots are peeled," she writes, "the heart of the plant is returned to the soil alongside leave tops. It is unclear if the heart is a reproductive component of the plant. However, traditions remain in place to honor and respect the plant" (150).
How may these practices relate to the plant's ecology? The possibility that the replanted "hearts" may continue to grow is intriguing. Could this practice allow people to harvest roots without killing the plants? If so, how long might it take a plant to regrow its root system? The replanting of hearts and leaves is not the only suggestion of vegetative reproduction for bitterroot. Although 83 of 84 plants Daubenmire dug up in Washington had only a single rosette of leaves, the remaining individual bore 38 rosettes, all growing within an area the size of a person's palm. Daubenmire explains that "adventitious buds arising well below the soil surface on thick lateral roots may produce additional caudices that rise to the surface, each bearing a rosette of leaves" (15). Robert Bandringa points out that when someone harvests a bitterroot plant, one or more lateral roots almost always break off. Based on Daubenmire's observations, Bandringa suggests that some of these roots might develop adventitious buds and regrow into new plants.
It seems even more likely that harvest, by loosening and disturbing the soil, could provide a good microhabitat for new seedlings to germinate. Bandringa observes that the traditional Nlaka'pamux harvest occurs just prior to flowering and involves leaving plants to bloom immediately adjacent to soil disturbed by digging. Presumably the combination of a prepared seedbed and a nearby seed source could greatly increase the recruitment of young bitterroot plants. This discussion suggests two additional ideas to me. Wind disperses bitterroot seeds, and in Montana prevailing winds often come from the west. Would bitterroots respond favorably to harvesting just to the east (downwind) of mature plants? And would the intentional roughening of the soil microtopography through digging tend to catch dispersing bitterroot "sailboats" and provide especially favorable sites for germination?
In modern times, cows are often abundant in bitterroot habitat. Disturbance from cows is not identical to that from root-digging humans, but perhaps it offers some insights. Indeed, the evidence surrounding cow disturbance is surprisingly conflicting. Forest Service researcher Janet Howard states that bitterroot "increases in response to heavy grazing." This statement seems to match my experience. For two bitterroot populations near Helena, Montana, I have noticed the highest densities of rosettes in heavily trampled cow paths and in the disturbed soil around a salt lick. In the latter case, the bitterroots were growing in a broad zone of low vegetation outside of a "ground zero" so trampled that it supported nothing except for annual knotweed (Polygonum sp.). Bitterroot densities appeared to be substantially higher in this zone of intermediate (but substantial) disturbance than in the surrounding bluebunch wheatgrass-dominated grassland.
In contrast to these observations, Robert Bandringa and his Nlaka'pamux sources suggest that cows may be playing a major role in the massive decline of bitterroot in the Thompson River valley. Bandringa points especially to soil compaction and trampling, noting that bitterroots now seem to grow preferentially under sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), where they are somewhat protected. He quotes elder Madeline Lanaro: "...they grew nice and big but the cows have all trampled them... they are little now, ...it is not as good as it used to [be]" (62). Saraphine Kirkpatrick adds that cows eat the bitterroot flowers, preventing them from setting seed. Bandringa also argues that the act of grazing favors grass regeneration (especially the species less preferred by cattle), potentially increasing competition with geophytes.
Why the divergent observations about cow disturbance? I can only speculate that differences in locality as well as in timing and intensity of grazing may be responsible. My observations of bitterroot growing somewhat abundantly in moderately trampled areas seem to point to certain similarities between disturbance by cows and disturbance by foragers. The action of cow hooves and the action of digging sticks may both reduce competition and provide good habitat for bitterroot. However, Bandringa's observations suggest that certain types of cow disturbance may be downright destructive for these plants. Moreover, even in the cow paths I have seen, where bitterroot appears to be abundant, it is conceivable that soil compaction may be preventing the plants from attaining the size and vigor that they might in the absence of cows and in the presence of traditional harvesting.
A final question about bitterroot management regards its response to fire. Intentional burning is a common Native management practice that may encourage many geophytes (Anderson). Bandringa suggests this possibility for bitterroot in the Thompson Valley, noting that the Nlaka'pamux did traditionally burn in the general area. Meanwhile, across western Montana, where many traditional bitterroot grounds are located, Salish and Pend d'Oreille elders remember that their people burned specific areas to encourage root foods, fruiting bushes, and forage for game and livestock (Fire on the Land). Pend d'Oreille elder Michael Louis Durglo, Sr. remembers hearing from his elders about "areas where bitterroot was as big as your thumb" (Fire on the Land). He notes that people used to maintain these areas by burning, and that bitterroot has become much smaller since traditional burning was outlawed. I was not able to find any fire ecology studies specific to bitterroot. However, Forest Service researcher Janet Howard predicts that burning during the summer or early fall, when bitterroot is dormant, would likely be beneficial for the species.
Considering specific possibilities for practices of sustainable bitterroot harvesting raises many questions. How long do bitterroot plants live? How quickly do they grow? When do plants first flower? Can certain fire regimes encourage populations? Can plants continue to grow from replanted "hearts" and rosettes? Does the action of selective digging create microhabitats that catch dispersing bitterroot seeds and allow many of them to grow? Yet in spite of this uncertainty about some details, it is clear that Native people across the west have harvested bitterroot for generations, sustainably and in vast quantities. Whether traditional gathering practices can not just sustain populations, but actually help restore or increase them, remains a fascinating possibility.
To many Nlaka'pamux harvesters, bitterroot is a plant with remarkably human-like qualities (Bandringa). Each one has a heart, and root branches that resemble arms and legs. Plants grow clustered in tight-knit communities, and the Nlaka'pamux often find plant "couples," their root arms embracing each other (Bandringa). Bitterroots are also human-like in their slow growth and reproduction. I was not able to learn whether these plants, too, must reach their teens before they can mature and reproduce - but it is clear that they are long-lived. Yet as industrial Homo sapiens have increased on the landscape, Lewisia rediviva numbers seem to have plummeted, at least in well-documented localities like the Thompson River Valley. Jerry DeSanto points to major habitat loss in Montana's Bitterroot Valley, too, where many traditional gathering sites have been destroyed by subdivisions.
Still other traditional gathering sites may still exist, but non-native settlers now claim ownership. For the Salish, Mitchell Rose Bear Don't Walk writes that "Many elders recall their families being chased off from prior and accustomed hunting and/or foraging grounds by angry and threatening settlers" (71). This sort of land theft has cut off the relationship between Native people and these now privately owned gathering sites. Bear Don't Walk points out that the loss of traditional diets has been tragic for many Native people, profoundly impacting people's health. Perhaps this loss of relationship has been equally tragic for the bitterroots, cut off from Native prayer and gathering, from the people who would loosen the soil every spring, replant the rosettes, and care for the long-term thriving of the populations.
I remain an outsider to this relationship, a non-native forager wishing to respect this declining indigenous plant and the cultures that have grown with it. Mitchell Rose Bear Don't Walk points out that Native place-based knowledge is vast, going far beyond the aspects of ecological knowledge that I have tried to understand in this paper. The Salish word for bitterroot, Spe??m, is unanalyzable, she notes, indicating that the word and relationship are unknowably ancient. Spe??m and the other plants "were among the first beings on the land according to Salish Creation," she writes (109). And it is impossible to understand this depth of relationship without the surrounding framework of Salish culture, language, worldview, and history.
So for me, a non-native forager on Native land, I believe that profound hesitation remains an appropriate attitude in my relationship with bitterroot. My embodied personal knowing of this plant is still extremely shallow - and it is hard to overestimate the detailed local knowledge of skilled, traditionally trained gatherers. Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer points out that traditional ecological knowledge is highly place-based, without western ecology's obsession with making generalizations. Thus, it is quite possible that successful bitterroot management techniques for the Salish in Montana may differ from successful practices for the Nlaka'pamux in southern British Columbia. Meanwhile, the high stakes - a slow life cycle and ongoing habitat loss - emphasize the need for extreme care in any gathering practices attempted outside of time-tested Native traditions.
So next spring will find me again sitting with discomfort among a patch of bitterroot and talking to the plants. Perhaps I may harvest another fifteen. If so, I will use a digging stick and choose plants from abundant patches, leaving others to flower immediately adjacent. I will remove the heart and the leaf rosette, replanting them in the hole. And I will return the next spring, and the next, trying to notice how the bitterroots respond. Will the patch grow larger and denser? Will the bitterroot hearts regrow? Will tens of new seedlings sprout up? I can only pay close attention, and hope.
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