The bitterseed vine is one of the few plants that grows on the Great Ice Plateau; population density of the plant decreases as it moves away from the Artic Corridor, but it is ubiquitous across the entirety of the Plateau. Several parts of the plant, especially the seeds, are used in traditional medicine, and even a number of modern pastilles and tonics use ingredients derived from bitterseed. It is also an important culinary vegetable in several Terra Altan cuisines, especially those that saw their start in the city-states of the Artic Corridor.
Bitterseed vine is a low-growing prostrate perennial plant. It spreads out radially from its origin, typically reaching a diameter of about three mennits before flowering; however, it has a long lifespan and will continue to spread outwards until it dies, so specimens of impressive size (some documented around 20 mennits in diameter) have been discovered.
The end of each tendril, in sexually-mature specimens, terminates in a very small ebracteate inflorescence. The "flowers" are actually modified sepals, colored pale blue and rimmed with purple; inside, the reproductive structures are arranged in such a way that any foraging frost beetle that enters will be coated with pollen. The petals are entirely vestigial, and visible only with significant magnification. The reason for this configuration is unknown, but the current leading theory is that the thick sepals afford greater control over the flowers' temperature than petals would, protecting the reproductive structures from the cold (and possibly weather).
The fruits are leguminous, but very small and hard; the pod is woody when fully mature, and covered in soft, fibrous "hair". The seeds inside are compared in size to grains of sand or pinheads, colored black and fairly glossy. The plant is considered inedible by most animals, so distribution is achieved primarily by axenbrons and other large, migratory creatures of the tundra and plateau; rather than having their fruit eaten and thus transported, it simply relies on its pods being crushed in passing and the small, light seeds scattered by the animals' passage and the wind.
The bitterseed vine is considered important for its use in remedies and spells across a large number of traditions. These uses typically focus on the seeds, but nearly every part of the plant is considered medicinal by some culture or group.
- The most common, and still-accepted, use of the plant is one near everyone is familiar with: the seeds are soaked in high-proof alcohol, then dried; after being dried, they are ground into a fine powder and packed into small gelatin capsules. The resulting pill is an excellent anti-inflammatory and painkiller; many claim that on top of that, it soothes numerous digestive upsets.
- The nomadic Skleth people are the largest users of the plant for medical and magical purposes: Skleth Medicine Men frequently create a tincture of the leaves and administer it to those suffering from severe gastric illnesses; this tincture is also modified for a wide variety of uses, typically by the addition of other plant materials, often from the chillbreath weed. They also create poultices by mixing the vine's seeds with a paste made from its roots, applying this mixture to open wounds and numerous rashes. Rarely, the flowers are harvested before going to seed, then boiled, strained, and packed into a hollowed-out snow fig; the stuffed fig is said to have contraceptive properties but is prohibitively expensive due to the number of flowers required, and as such is restricted to Skleth nobility.
- The Brothers of the Frond believe that a creamy soup made using young shoots harvested from old vines can cure a wide variety of ailments, from headache to nausea to respiratory distress; this remedy is rarely used by those who are not adherents of the Brothers' faith.
- For centuries, small pieces of untreated vine were chewed to prevent halitosis and tooth decay; however, due to the mild toxicity of the uncooked plant, this likely caused more problems than it solved, and the practice is rarely seen today.
The bitterseed vine's name accurately indicates the great bitterness of its seeds; these seeds are frequently used in small quantities as spices and additives, and in the right balance can offset an overpoweringly-sweet food and provide a complex, nutty undertone to flavor. Bitterseeds are most used in Clemornian and Jottish cuisine; Dastaschite cooking, by contrast, favors using the leaves and roots as vegetables rather than focusing on the seeds as spices. Indeed, a Dastasch Bitterseed Salad and Bitterleaf Bisque are currently at the height of haute cuisine among much of Terra Alta, leading to greatly-increased demand (and prices) of many bitterseed products.
However, arguably more important than its use in flavoring or cooking is the bitterseed's use as preservative. Indeed, in his seminal work, Artic Influence, Joran DeBried called it the "unsung hero of the Artic Corridor", postulating that it was almost entirely the bitterseed's preservative qualities that allowed a number of Artic civilizations to attain the mercantile and military prowess they did. He believes that without the ability to travel long distances over land, sea, and sky without worrying about finding more food or their food spoiling, most Artic city-states would have stayed insular and small, and cultural intermingling and development would have been severely crippled.
Cultivation of bitterseed vine is quite problematic; it grows most prolifically in a region where no permanent culture survives, and dies rapidly if moved to warmer climes. Since lasting settlements on the Plateau are largely improbable, and repeated agricultural pilgrimages are impractical, most bitterseed vine is simply harvested from wild-growing specimens, rather than truly farmed; harvesters make sure to plant enough seeds too keep populations healthy and future generations growing, but true cultivation is largely absent.
There are some efforts using more efficient modern transportation and insulation to create viable ways of producing large-scalle bitterseed vine cultivation, but these efforts are in their beginning stages and have shown little success thus far.