A native perennial, mountain bistort inhabits wet mountain meadows and streambanks at subalpine and alpine elevations throughout Western North America. Bistorta bistortoides is the scientific name accepted in the California Flora Index and the indices of several additional states while other state floras instead recognize this plant as Polygonum bistortoides.
Mountain bistort is a variable species with white or pinkish flowers that grows between 6 inches and 2 1/2 feet in height. Plants at more northern latitudes generally are smaller in size and have flowers that are more likely to be pink, rather than white.
Growing from a fleshy rootstock, the leaves of mountain bistort are leathery and broadly lance shaped. Most of the leaves are basal and have petioles (stalks). Moving up the stem the few leaves on the stem get smaller and become sessile (lack a stalk). A sheath encloses the stem below each leaf node. The inflorescence is a rounded or elliptical ball of flowers at the end of the red to pinkish stem and is well above the basal leaves. Each tiny tubular flower has five sepals, five petals and eight stamens. The stamens extend beyond the petals and give the inflorescence a brush-like appearance. Mountain bistort fruits are smooth, yellow-brown, triangular shaped achenes (dry seeds). Sometimes the lower flowers develop into bulblets that fall off and can develop into new plants.
Young mountain bistort leaves are edible as greens. The roots were eaten raw or roasted by Native Americans and were often added whole to soups and stews. The seeds can be ground into flour or cracked and used as a cereal. Although in some places (particularly protected areas such as parks) mountain bistort can occur in abundance, in many areas only scattered plants are found. I have never been fortunate enough to see a “carpet” of white mountain bistort plants but rather have only found a few scattered plants. Therefore I have never eaten mountain bistort.
Medicinally mountain bistort roots were dried by indigenous peoples and ground into a powder that was used to stop minor bleeding and to treat skin irritations.
This pretty plant, a member of the Buckwheat Family, is known colloquially by several other names including American bistort, snakeweed, and western bistort.
The species name, bistortoides, derives from the Latin (“bis” meaning “twice” and “torta” meaning “twisted”) and refers to the jointed stems.
These mountain bistort plants were growing in the meadow near the Lower Ash Creek Campground (Lassen County CA).