FLORENCE — Thousands of bitterroot flowers ranging in color from white to hot pink flourish under a decade and a half worth of care by one Bitterroot Valley resident.
Pamela Priem, who lives on Bitterroot Drive, said there were only a few bitterroot flowers on her property when she moved to Montana in 2002. But, after hundreds, possibly even thousands, of hours spent pulling weeds to eliminate the flowers' competition Priem now has so many flowers it can be difficult to walk around her backyard without stepping on a bloom.
“I’ve unearthed more bitterroots than I ever dreamed of having,” Priem said.
When Priem first began spending hours pulling weeds around the flowers, neighbors thought she was crazy, Priem said. Now, when people walk by, their jaw drops at the sight, she said. Any of her neighbors could have thousands of flowers as well, but they’re not crazy enough to put in the time, she said.
Beyond her weeding, Priem said the flowers do most of the work themselves. The plant, which only blossoms for a few weeks, produces seeds in July, according to Marilyn Marler, the natural areas specialist at the University of Montana. The wind then does most of the work dispersing seeds.
The bitterroot is unique, Marler said. After seeding, the flower is absent until November, when it forms leaves that come up under the snow. The leaves then die in May before blooming.
Priem could spend hours wandering around, looking at each flower, she said. “They’re only here for a short time so you have to just enjoy the heck out of them while they’re around.”
Some of the flowers Priem considers to be special are surrounded by stones to help her locate them. She often gets lost among the flowers. Two of the encircled flowers have white petals and stamens, which Priem said are sacred because they haven’t been crossbred with a pink bitterroot.
Priem is especially proud of the flowers because, as the state flower, they represent Montana. Priem had always wanted to live in Montana and after “life hit the fan,” as she referred to it, she did just that. She now considers herself a Montana native. “This is where I belong,” she said.
The flowers represent the joy Priem has found in Montana, the closest place to heaven there is on Earth, she said.
Bitterroot flowers have been growing in Montana for centuries. The roots were a food source for the Salish and Blackfeet tribes, Marler said.
Priem said it is important to her to understand what the flowers meant to the Salish and Blackfeet tribes because this was their land. She listens to the stories told by the Salish. Through volunteering at the Stevensville Museum, Priem has seen the dig sticks used to uproot the plants before they bloomed. Now, Priem said, a crooked piece of rebar is used. The roots are bitter, hence the name, and are still used in Native American dishes.
In Missoula, Marler said the flowers were once abundant in the area around what is now Shopko and the Oval on the University of Montana campus, and the tribes collected them there. In honor of that tradition, Marler said she hopes to plant more bitterroots — possibly as many as 300 — in the native plant garden around the Payne Family Native American Center on campus. This time of year, people are most likely to find blooms on Waterworks Hill.
Bitterroot flowers are easy to grow as long as they are not overcrowded or over-watered, Marler said. They can be grown easily in a garden with well-draining soil. With no state laws protecting the flower, seeds and plants can be bought at local nurseries and flower shops. But, it is illegal to collect plants on city-owned property and Marler considers it unethical to dig up wild bitterroot flowers for personal gardens.