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Flower devotion: Display chronicles Henry Grant's long love affair with state flower
The collection of Bitterroot flower enthusiast Henry Grant is displayed at the Ravalli County Museum where author John James Stroud, right, speaks as part of the Bitterroot Days celebration honoring the state flower.
LINDA THOMPSON/Missoulian

Bitterroot flower aficionado Henry Grant would have turned 98 years old this June.

But the man known across Ravalli County as "Mr. Bitterroot" is 10 years gone this month, and the subject of an historical retrospective as part of Ravalli County's Bitterroot Days celebration.

The memory of the dungareed, weather-worn farmer, who championed and promoted the Montana state flower, lives on in a the vast collection of over 1,000 knickknacks emblazoned with the Bitterroot flower, now on display at the Ravalli County Museum until July 1.

From intricate needlepoint bouquets, to ceramic Easter eggs, to porcelain teacups and saucers, to hand mirrors and thimbles - even shovel heads seem apt palettes when adorned with the pink-hued state florets.

Friend John James Stroud, who spoke about Grant at the museum during the weekend's festivities, said Sunday he met him at a Gardner Auction in the years Grant was in active pursuit of trinkets featuring the neatly petaled bud.

He doesn't remember why his friend loved the Bitterroot blooms so much - only that he wanted to collect as many things as he could find that featured their likeness for an ongoing collection.

Grant, he said, planned from the beginning to donate the rubescent assortment of items to the Bitterroot Valley Historical Society, to be displayed as a museum collection.

"He was a tremendous historian and really supported museums," said Stroud.

Ravalli County Museum director Tamar Stanley said the vast collection of flower-laden novelties is displayed each year in celebration of Hamilton's Bitterroot Days - an occasion that was Grant's favorite - and in memory of a man who appreciated the state flower like nobody's business.

Grant's collection of porcelain, cloth, stone and meta, featuring Bitterroot plumes was one of the museum's first exhibits to draw a crowd, said Stanley.

"About 500 visitors come to see the collection each year," she said. Without it, awareness of the museum's existence may not be apparent to many locals, according to Stanley.

Stroud recalls countless weekends he and his ex-wife spent treasure hunting for the floral collectibles alongside Grant, and remembers the many tales told along the way.

"We'd pass various houses as we made our way down the Bitterroot, and Henry would delight us with stories of who lived in each house, and of family history," Stroud said.

Treasure hunting always came to an abrupt halt in the first week of June, though, he said, in favor of the real thing.

The once-leisurely searches for showpieces that depicted the state flower were put on hold for the emergence of the flower, and its brief season of bloom.

It was then that Grant poured energy into tending rows of the ephemeral blooms like a nanny in a nursery of newborns. Bathed in hues of pink, and set off against a backdrop of white picket fencing, Grant's land seem to bear them by the thousands each year.

Viewing the museum collection this year, Bud and Irene Wood may not be the next "Mr. and Mrs. Bitterroot," but they are devoted fans of the varied spectrum of pink and lavender hues these hearty perennials lend to their own 20-acre landscape.

The couple live just south of Hamilton on Lake Como Road, and said the first week of June is a visual feast of color once the Bitterroots begin blooming on their property.

"If the conditions are right, there are well over 1,000 flowers that come into bloom by about June 7," said Irene. "Last year, we had the most, but this year, we just don't know," she said of the blooms' late season and opening.

Bud Wood said the spread of blossoms he views out his window each year is about the length and width of a football field. Because the flowers bloom for a short week, and then disappear until the following year, he tries to get an eyeful.

"Have you ever seen a Bitterroot plant flower?" Wood asks. "Well," he said, "it shoots up like an onion, then those tubes disappear, and a bud without any leaves appears, and then opens to a Bitterroot flower.

"It's beautiful," he said.

One look at the thousands of blooms in Grant's own collection leaves no doubt.

Reporter Lori Grannis can be reached at 523-5251 or lori.grannis@lee.net.

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