Stories of the Sp̓eƛ̓m̓ (Bitterroot)
by Aspen Decker
Broadcast 5.25 & 5.28.2021

Painting of bitterroot by Mary E. Eaton for National Geographic Magazine, 1917 (public domain image).




My earliest memory of sp̓eƛ̓m̓ (bitterroot) was when I was 12, on a warm spring day in Ql̓nitxʷé, ‘Camas Prairie,’ where I sat with a group of elderly Seliš women visiting and cleaning the skin off the roots of the bitterroot plants. The women never left any inner pink skin on the root; it was always cleaned white. They would pop out the heart of the bitterroot and set it in the pile of peelings that were to be reburied. It was a smooth technique, achieved by digging their nails into the skin just deep enough that the peelings would gracefully slip off the roots. While we łoqʷm t sox̣ʷép (cleaned the roots), I listened to them reminisce on old stories, told with our Indian humor. The day was full of laughter and joy and connecting to our culture.

Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) appear in the spring on sagebrush slopes and dry grasslands. After the buds appear, the leaves dry up and the flowers bloom, usually in May and June. The flowers range from an almost-white to dark pink and are up to two inches across. The bitterroot was named the Montana state flower in 1895. Meriwether Lewis was the first European to document bitterroot in the spring of 1806 in Lolo, Montana, near the confluence of Lolo Creek and the Bitterroot River.

The sp̓eƛ̓m̓ (bitterroot) is one of the staple foods for the Séliš. An old Séliš creation story tells how the sp̓eƛ̓m̓ came from tears of an elderly woman that was gifted by a spirit bird that saved the people from starvation. The month of May is called Sp̓eƛ̓m̓ Spq̓niʔ (Bitterroot Month). When spring high waters appear, the bitterroot returns. Séliš women were the caretakers of the sp̓eƛ̓m̓. A woman was selected to keep watch of the sp̓eƛ̓m̓ to know when it was ready to be harvested. Once the sp̓eƛ̓m̓ was ready she would notify the chief. The camp crier would let the entire camp know there would be a sp̓eƛ̓m̓ feast the following day to honor the sp̓eƛ̓m̓. The leftover sp̓eƛ̓m̓ from the previous year was prepared and cooked with other foods.

At the first dig of the year the women chose the sp̓eƛ̓m̓ to be blessed. The chief or an elder išé č̓uč̓awm x̣ʷl speƛ̓m (would pray for the bitterroot). A female was selected and asked to dig the blessed root. Afterwards, everyone could begin digging the roots. The elderly women would sit around u es łoqʷi t sox̣ʷép (and clean the roots).

A péceʔ (root digger) is used to dig near the sp̓eƛ̓m̓ to loosen the soil. The péceʔ is traditionally made out of a stick that is slightly bowed on each side with sharpened ends. The handle is a piece of an elk antler with a hole in the center that fits on the ends of the stick. If one side of the péceʔ becomes dull then the elk antler can be relocated to the other end. Some people would carve designs in the elk handle, which was an heirloom passed down to the women in the family.

After digging up the sp̓eƛ̓m̓, the Séliš peeled and dried it for winter, and would cook it in various ways. It could be cooked with either serviceberries or huckleberries, or the roots could be steamed on small twigs above boiling water. Sp̓eƛ̓m̓ was also cooked with broth and meat. Blue camas was a natural sweetener. In contemporary times sugar is used for sweetening the sp̓eƛ̓m̓.

During the sp̓eƛ̓m̓ feast a few speakers were asked to give blessings. Many asked for blessings for a prosperous year and thanked the sp̓eƛ̓m̓ for coming back to the people. When I see the bitterroots blooming on the ̓čłčewm ‘in the prairie’ each spring, I, too, am thankful that the sp̓eƛ̓m̓ has come back to us.

Aspen Decker is an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (T̓at̓áyaqn, Qlispé & Sqlsé) and a reviver of her tribal language, Nsélišcn (Salish).


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