How I Fell in Love with Bitterroot Plants
by Jean Pocha
Broadcast 6.1 & 6.4.2022
One June about seven years ago, my husband brought home a bitterroot plant. It was stuck to his irrigation shovel by the clay soil from the hay fields near our house in the Helmville Valley. I marveled at the beautiful hot pink blooms and planted them in the flower bed, where they rarely reappeared.
A couple of years later I was ready to go find the bitterroot on my own. I headed into the sagebrush following my husband’s “over there” arm gesture. Within a mile of walking I came upon a patch about 400-500 feet square of rocky, clayey barren ground. And it was dotted with the spectacular pink blooms of the bitterroot! The flowers resemble a dainty daisy, with 12-16 petals and a hairy center with numerous half-inch-long white pistils awaiting pollination.
Several times that June I went back to see them and began noticing some curious things. There were no leaves! When the flowers dry up, the plant totally disappears! I began really wondering what kind of crazy plant this was. The next April I hopped from snowdrift to melting snowdrift to avoid the wet and sticky clay on my way to the bitterroot field in search of sprouts. And right there, next to a melting snowdrift, I saw my first bitterroot leaves. They look different than the leaves any other common plant has with a dime- to nickel-sized cluster of narrow, fleshy green points erupting through the soil.
In mid- to late May I began noticing the leaves shrinking, getting fatter and shorter, while a bud began poking up through the center. In early June the leaves had completely receded on most of the plants, while fat pendulous buds were all that remained.
I eagerly visited the patch every couple of days, waiting for the first blooms. Finally I was rewarded with brilliant pinkness! Their color spectrum ranges from hot pink to faded pinks, and even white flowers show up occasionally. The plant at its biggest is no more than 3 inches high. In this area, many of the plants were growing in clusters at the base of the sagebrush, which was curious to me.
At the end of their season, the plants go dormant, and the papery tan dried-up sepals form an upside-down umbrella that the open cone of seeds sits in. After the seed cone is mature and the sepals break free from the ground, they tumble like a wandering umbrella across the rocky, clay soil until they lodge against a sagebrush or prickly pear. Their tiny black seeds are dispersed along the way, falling into the cracks of the dry soil. That’s why there are so many clusters of flowers at the base of the sagebrush, where they come to their final rest for the year.
This entire cycle is only 8-10 weeks long. After the seeds disperse, there’s no way of knowing that the bitterroot plants are there. Only their root remains, below ground, awaiting the right combination of temperature and moisture to begin the cycle again.
Over my years of getting to know the bitterroot plants, I have developed great respect for their individual growing cycle. They are rockstars of the plant world to me because of their wonderful adaptations. Observing them gives me a deeper connection to the cycles and purposes and all the different systems plants have to survive and thrive. Bitterroots also have a fascinating place in Indigenous culture and history…but that’s a story for another time.
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