Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bitterroot Mts live up to their name.

The branching taproot of Bitterroot
A few weeks ago Katrina and I traveled to Missoula for the Northwest Scientific Association Conference. She presented her Master’s research and we both attended several great talks related to fire ecology, wetlands, climate change, and bryology. We made a point of leaving some time to explore the dry slopes around Missoula for early spring edible roots. In particular, I was keen to find Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva), and a type of biscuit root called Cous Root (Lomatium cous), since both are traditional root vegetables of major importance to Native Americans throughout the dryland forests of Columbia River watershed.

The large Bitterroot flowers range from pink to white.

Wild onions
When we arrived in Missoula, the north slopes of all the surrounding mountains were still covered with snow from a late winter blizzard. I was worried that we were too early and the plants would still be dormant, but just like in the Cascades, the perennial roots had quickly sprung up after the snow melted. It even snowed a few inches one morning, but hastily melted in the afternoon, further coaxing the precocious leaves of Wild Onions, Camas, Bitterroot and Cous Root from their wintery reserves.

A small thick Cous Root
Both Bitterroot and Cous Root seemed to prefer to grow in rocky meadow soil. They take advantage of the moisture from snow melt and flower very early in the season, but I was even earlier. No sign of the huge pink Bitterroot flowers were visible yet and the plant's presence was only discernible by small tentacle like leaves. Cous Root produces leaves and flowers at nearly the same time, but both were still in the early stages of unfurling. Soil that probably becomes dry and impenetrable later in the year yielded to my digging stick and I pried out several starchy roots of both species, quickly realizing why Indigenous harvesters of these roots employed narrow tipped digging sticks that easily pierce tough soils and slide between rocks. These roots were smaller than I had imagined, but they were also more abundant than I thought they would be.

Cous Root Distribution (CPNWH)
Emerging flowers and leaves
Cous Root is a sparsely leaved yellow flowered tap rooted herbaceous perennial. Blue-green Tri-pinnately compound leaves arise basally, or from the bottom of the flowering stalk; leaflets are elliptic and up to 15 mm long; the base of the leaf petioles are broad and flattened, red or streaked with red, and wrap around the flowering stalk. Yellow flowers emerge in a compound umbel with or shortly after the leaves on a 10-35 cm long stalk; each umbel is comprised of 5-20 rays (stalks) that are 1.5-10 cm long at maturity. Well-developed involucel bractlets that are 2-5 mm long subtend each cluster of flowers, but an involucre (bracts below the larger compound umbel) is absent. The short taproots often have tuberous enlargements. Cous Root grows in open dry meadows in rocky soil in southeastern Washington, eastern Oregon, Idaho, western Montana, and northern Nevada.

Cous Root line-up
Rehydrated Cous Root
Native Americans throughout the plants range peeled and ate Cous Roots fresh or dried. Dried roots were often pulverized into flour or meal and later boiled to thicken and flavor soups (Moerman 1998). The common name and species epithet “Cous” comes to us from the Sahaptin word x̣̣awš, which is also written coush (Hilty et al. 1980; Hunn 1990; Ettinger and Harless 1995). Eugene Hunn writes that Native Americans living along the Mid-Columbia traditionally harvested as much as 60 bushels or Cous, Bitterroot, and other spring root vegetables every year. Some, such as my friend Heather, still harvest Cous and Bitterroot every spring. Cous is dug after the seeds have formed in late March or April at lower elevations and as late as June at higher elevations. At this time the bark is easy to peel from starchy roots (Hilty et al. 1980).
Bitterroot Distribution (CPNWH)
Bitterroot prior to flowering
Bitterroot is a very small herbaceous perennial with a proportionately large flower. Small linear leaves arise in the early spring in a basal rosette; each leaf is 1-5 cm long and 2-3 mm with a thick fleshy consistency and blue-green color that makes them resemble sea anemone. In May or June large white, pink, or purple flowers emerge singly or in clusters of 2-5 on short stems. Branching taproots 5-10 cm long reach into the gravely or rocky soil that they inhabit. Bitterroots grow in sagebrush plains and open forests in the mountains east of the Cascade Crest in southern British Columbia southward to California and eastward to Montana and Wyoming.

A small but stout Bitterroot
Peeled and dried Bitterroot
Like Cous, the roots of Bitterroot were universally eaten by Native Americans wherever they were found. The skin of the roots is exceedingly bitter thus leading to the common name, but traditional harvesters deliberately harvested the roots in the spring before they flowered when the skins easily slip off yielding a starching root that only has the slightest hint of bitterness.

I've transplanted both species into pots in my back yard so that I can continue my experiments with these tasty roots without having to drive over the mountains.

Consortium of Pacific Northwest Herbaria (CPNWH).

Ettinger, Marjorie L. and Susan E. Harless 1995. “Warm Spring Reservation of Oregon: Botanical Descriptions and Floral Checklist.” Kalmiopsis.

Hilty, Ivy E. Jean H. Peters, Eva M. Benson, Margaret A. Edwards, and Lorrain T. Miller 1980. “Nutritive Values of Native Foods of Warm Spring Indians.” Extension Circular 809, Oregon State University Extension Service, Corvallis Oregon.

Hunn, Eugene S. 1990. “Nch’i-Wána: ‘The Big River’, Mid-Columbia Indians and Their Land.” University of Washington Press, Seattle WA.

Moerman, Dan. “Native American Ethnobotany” database. University of Michigan, Dearborn MI.

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