- Common Beargrass Care : Learn How To Grow Beargrass In The Garden
- Common Beargrass Plant Info
- How to Grow Beargrass
- Common Beargrass Care
- Bear Grass
- Plant of the Week
- Bear-grass (Xerophyllum tenax)
- Whitefish Bear Grass bloom is amazing this year – here are 7 interesting facts about this plant
- Bear Grass – Xerophyllum tenax
Common Beargrass Care : Learn How To Grow Beargrass In The Garden
The common beargrass plant is a wild native in the Pacific Northwest up into British Columbia and southwest to Alberta. Beargrass in gardens has a striking perennial presence with its large fluffy flower heads and arching foliage. It is also quite easy to grow with high frost tolerance and low nutrient needs. Learn how to grow beargrass and if it is suitable for your garden.
Common Beargrass Plant Info
A nature hike around western North America in late spring to early summer, you may see fields of slender arching foliage with huge fluffy white flower heads. The plant is beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax), and the name stems from the fact that young bears seem to like to eat the tender stems. The plant is protected in some of its native range, so if you want to start growing beargrass in gardens, it is best to use seed or transplant an offset from a garden buddy’s plant.
Beargrass has slender grass-like stems that may get 3 feet (.91 m.) long. It is an evergreen perennial that is found in open woods, sunny clearings in dry or wet soil. It is primarily in cool, subalpine zones. The flowers occur on a thick fleshy stem
that can get up to 6 feet (1.8 m.) in height. The flowers are a thick cluster of scented white tiny blooms. Depending upon which cultivar, the scent is reminiscent of lilacs or musty old socks. The fruits are 3-lobed dry capsules.
As the plant matures, it develops offsets which can be harvested for propagation. The seeds should be harvested fresh and planted immediately or dried and stored in a dark, cool location. Beargrass is a favorite of not only bears but rodents and elk, and it also attracts pollinating insects.
How to Grow Beargrass
Growing common beargrass from seed is very straightforward but plants won’t produce flowers for a couple of years. Propagation by rhizome is quicker and results in flowers the first year.
If you have harvested seed, it will need stratification before it will germinate. You can do this in your refrigerator for 12 to 16 weeks or plant the seed in fall and let nature do the process for you. Sow seed at a depth of ½ inch (.13 cm.) deep directly to the garden bed in late fall. If sowing in spring, pre-soak seed in distilled water for 24 hours to encourage germination.
To harvest offsets, cut carefully around the parent plant where the offset is attached. Excavate under the little plant and use a sharp, clean knife to sever the pup. Make sure roots are attached to the offset. Plant immediately in humus rich soil with plenty of grit added for drainage.
Common Beargrass Care
Newly planted seeds should be watered sparingly to prevent rot. Seeds outdoors will usually receive enough rainfall from natural spring precipitation.
Provide young plants average water but they do not need fertilizer. Use organic mulch to prevent competitive weeds and conserve soil moisture. Mature plants will benefit from removal of the spent flower head. Prune off any damaged leaves.
Beargrass in the wild is often a pioneer species which appears and then goes away when taller plants start colonizing. It is also one of the first plants to appear after a fire. The plant is having a hard time surviving in the wild due to habitat loss and logging. Start some seed and increase the population of this wild plant that is important to many insect and animal species.
National Park Service
Several times throughout the Lewis and Clark journals, the writers refer to a plant they named beargrass. This common wildflower (Xerophyllum tenax) is actually not a grass, but a member of the family.
The plant is native to Montana, but can also be found in subalpine meadows and coastal mountains throughout the Pacific Northwest, extending from British Columbia to northern California and eastward to Alberta and northwestern Wyoming.
Beargrass can grow up to five feet in height with long and wiry, grass-like basal leaves at the base of the stalk and a cluster of small, dense white flowers at the top. While bears do not eat the plant, they will use leaves as denning material. Sheep, deer, elk, and goats are known to eat beargrass.
A common myth states that beargrass only blooms every seven years. In reality, the plant flowers whenever conditions are appropriate. A single plant may have numerous basal rosettes on a common root system. Each rosette will bloom only once. Factors for abundant plant blooming include ideal amounts of spring rainfall and moisture present in the soil. For this reason, back-to-back blooming is rare. Blooming can begin in late May in lower elevations and continue into August in the high country.
The plant was first called beargrass by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition. At that time “Bear grass” was a common name for yucca (commonly called soapweed today), which has a superficial resemblance to beargrass. Native peoples have used beargrass leaves for basket weaving, and roots were used to treat injuries. Other common names for this plant include basket grass, bear lily, pine lily, elk grass, squaw grass, and turkeybeard.
Common Names: Indian Basket Grass, Soap Grass, Squaw Grass
Parts Used: roots and leaves are used in weaving
Bear Grass looks like a grass, but really belongs to the lily family. It is about 4.5 feet tall. Its olive-colored, grass-like leaves grow from the base of the plant and are tough and wiry. The outside leaves clasp around the stem. The leaves have toothed margins, and grow about 35 inches long, getting shorter as they near the flowers, looking very much like a fan.
The flowers of bear grass grow on a stalk that can be 6 feet tall with many small flowers. Each flower is creamy white, and saucer shaped, and has a sweet aroma.
The lowest flowers bloom first, creating a tight knot of buds at the top. The entire flower looks a little like fluffy, upside down ice cream cone. Bear grass tends to flower in 5 to 7 year cycles. After the fruit sets, the plant dies. It reproduces by seed, and by sending out offshoots from its rhizomes.
Bear grass is found in open forests and meadows at sub alpine and low alpine elevations in the western United States. It is commonly found under alpine larch (Larix lyallii) and whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) stands on cold, rocky sites at upper timberlines.
Bear grass is a fire-resistant species that is the first plant to grow after a fire. Beargrass, and many other native plants, need periodic burns to produce strong, new growth. After a fire beargrass sprouts from its rhizomes which lie just under the surface. Light fires of short duration are best. Intense fires which linger in the same place for a long time will kill the rhizomes under the ground, and prevent the beargrass from growing back.
Native Americans in Oregon, Washington state, and British Columbia have traditionally made beautiful baskets with the stems and roots of beargrass. When the leaves are dried in the sun in preparation for making baskets, they turn a creamy white. Combined with other materials of different colors, beautiful designs were woven into the baskets. Hats and other practical objects were also made of beargrass. A wonderful site to find out more about Native American basket weaving is: http://www.kstrom.net/isk/art/basket/baskmenu.html
“Bear Grass”, http://www.timbermountain.com/wildflowers.html, (6-23-00)
“Basketry, Hats, Footgear–Native American Art”, http://www.kstrom.net/isk/art/basket/bascloth.html, (8-19-02).
Plant of the Week
Xerophyllum tenax range map. USDA PLANTS Database.
Bear-grass (Xerophyllum tenax)
By Russ Holmes
Bear-grass is in the Liliaceae (lily family) which contains 478 species in North America and approximately 4,200 species worldwide distributed mostly in the tropics. It is a diverse plant family and includes numerous important ornamentals, a number of important agricultural crops and has been the source of valuable pharmacopoeia. Leaves of Bear-grass are collected from wild populations and sold to the floral industry for use in floral arrangements. Bear-grass is also sought for use as an ornamental in cultivated landscapes and gardens. Collection of Bear-grass from native habitats should occur only after proper permission and permits have been obtained from the appropriate agency or land owner. The collection of entire plants from wild populations is strongly discouraged. Plants for use in landscaping or gardens should be purchased from reputable native plant nurseries or propagated from seed purchased or collected from wild plants.
Bear-grass is a stout perennial arising from a woody, tuber-like rhizome. Leaves are dull olive green and typically 2 to 8 decimeters (0.7 to 2.6 feet) long 2 to 4 millimeters (0.08 to 0.16 inches) wide, persistent, grass-like in appearance and rough to the touch. Flower stems typically range from 1.2 to 1.8 meters (3.9 to 5.9 feet) high. The inflorescence is a raceme 5 to 7 decimeters (1.6 to 2.3 feet) long. Flowers are white or cream in color and slightly fragrant. Tepals are oblong to lanceolate 6 to 9 millimeters (0.2 to 0.4 inches) long and 2 to 3 millimeters (0.08 to 0.1 inches) wide. Plants flower in spring to early summer, depending on elevation and latitude and can form highly attractive displays in their natural habitats.
The species grows from near sea level to over 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) in open coniferous woods, dry ridges, rocky slopes and clearings. It ranges over a wide geographic area in western North America extending from British Columbia south to the Sierra Nevada and Coast Range of California and east from Alberta to northwest Wyoming. It is a common occurrence in the Olympic, Cascade, northern Sierra Nevada, and Rocky Mountains.
Native Americans have long used Bear-grass for a variety of purposes. Leaves were used for basket weaving, leaf fibers for clothing and the rhizomes roasted for food. Eastern prairie tribes boiled the roots for a hair tonic and the treatment for sprains. Elk and deer forage on the flower stalks. Grizzly bears have been known to use bear-grass leaves in winter dens during hibernation. Bear-grass is capable of surviving light and moderate fire and regrowth after fire and can serve an important role in soil erosion and site revegetation.
For More Information
- PLANTS Profile – Xerophyllum tenax, Bear-grass
Whitefish Bear Grass bloom is amazing this year – here are 7 interesting facts about this plant
June 13, 2017
Posted by: Jennifer Fisher
- Bear Grass looks like a grass, but really belongs to the lily family. It is about 4.5 feet tall. Its olive-colored, grass-like leaves grow from the base of the plant and are tough and wiry. The outside leaves clasp around the stem. The leaves have toothed margins, and grow about 35 inches long, getting shorter as they near the flowers, looking very much like a fan.
- The flowers of bear grass grow on a stalk that can be 6 feet tall with many small flowers. Each flower is creamy white, and saucer shaped, and has a sweet aroma. The lowest flowers bloom first, creating a tight knot of buds at the top. The entire flower looks a little like fluffy, upside down ice cream cone. After the fruit sets, the plant dies. It reproduces by seed, and by sending out offshoots from its rhizomes.These plants only bloom every 5 – 7 years, and when they bloom there can be very few of them or almost every single plant will burst into flower. Bear Grass blooms from June until September when the young mountain bluebirds are preparing to take flight.
- Bear Grass is found in open forests and meadows at sub alpine and low alpine elevations in the western United States. It is commonly found under alpine larch (Larix lyallii) and whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) stands on cold, rocky sites at upper timberlines.
- Bear Grass is a fire-resistant species that is the first plant to grow after a fire. Bear Grass, and many other native plants, need periodic burns to produce strong, new growth. After a fire Bear Grass sprouts from its rhizomes which lie just under the surface. Light fires of short duration are best. Intense fires which linger in the same place for a long time will kill the rhizomes under the ground, and prevent the Bear Grass from growing back.
- Native Americans in Oregon, Washington state, and British Columbia have traditionally made beautiful baskets with the stems and roots of Bear Grass. When the leaves are dried in the sun in preparation for making baskets, they turn a creamy white. Combined with other materials of different colors, beautiful designs were woven into the baskets. Hats and other practical objects were also made of beargrass. Indians of the mountain regions, laden with neatly packed bundles of bear grass, went to the coast to trade with the coastal Indians for wappatoo roots and for the blue beads obtained from the small trading ships that were beginning to find their way up the coast. Using a combination with cedar bark, the Indians of the coast were able to to weave a basket so close that they were watertight. This was without using any gum or resin. The smaller end of a conic shape, or a segment of cone was the bottom of the basket.
- Bear grass, also called turkey beard, one of two species of North American plants constituting the genus Xerophyllum of the family Melanthiaceae. The western species, X. tenax (the dry leaf that holds fast), also is known as elk grass, squaw grass, and fire lily.
- The roots are fibrous but can be eaten either boiled or roasted.
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When I mention bear grass, people familiar with the plant usually light up as if its creamy blossoms were right in front of their face. I’m lucky to have one in full bloom right now in my backyard (yes, just one—I have more, but they’re too young to bloom). Bear grass typically takes many years to flower, so I am savoring this one as much as possible. En masse in nature they are quite a vision, and even when not in bloom they make a lovely, luminescent, soil-stabilizing ground cover. But don’t you dare even think about taking even one plant from the wild.
Bear grass, a common name for Xerophyllum tenax, comes from observations that bears like to eat the young fleshy stems, and Grizzly bears reportedly have been known to use bear grass leaves in winter dens during hibernation. It’s a popular plant for many other species who use it for food or cover: from bees and beetles to rodents and elk. Though not a true grass, other common names include Indian basket grass, squaw grass, deer grass, elk grass, and soap grass (not sure where the latter came from!).
The botanical name comes from the Greek xero (dry) and phyllon (leaf), and the Latin tenax (tough or tenacious). It’s an evergreen member of the corn lily family (Melanthiaceae), a group of flowering perennial herbs native to the northern hemisphere. I’ve included bear grass in my book even though it’s not terribly easy to grow. When it does establish, it spreads (very slowly) by forming offsets and by seed.
Long, skinny, and rather wiry leaves arise from the rhizome in clumps. Their edges are rough and finely serrated and it’s their toughness that helps the plant minimize water loss during periods of drought, as well as insulate it from frost.
Flowers open from the bottom up, so that the inflorescence, which ranges in height from two to five feet, takes on many different shapes as it matures. Flower fragrance varies; one study reported that one-fifth of bear grass flowers in their sample had a sweet smell like cultivated lilacs, while the others smelled “musty-acrid.” The one now blooming in my yard is, thankfully, the former, although not as sweet as lilacs.
After the blossoms fade away the flowering plant usually dies, but the long-lived rhizome lives on and offsets bloom when they are mature enough. Its fruits are three-lobed dry capsules, about ¼ inch in length, that contain 6 or 7 beige seeds, which may be eaten by migratory birds prior to fall flights. They may be sown in fall or early spring and need at least 12 weeks of cold stratification.
How it grows
Bear grass grows naturally in a variety of conditions—in cool, moist meadows and bogs, and mixed-coniferous forest openings in most of western Washington and Oregon, coastal areas of northern and central California, northern Idaho, parts of British Columbia and Montana, and a snippet of Wyoming. I’ve come across it on hikes in the Oregon Cascades near trees such as Douglas-fir, Western hemlock, or mountain ash, and among smaller species like huckleberry, bunchberry, fawn lily, star-flowered false solomon’s seal, inside-out flower, foamflower, and woodland strawberry.
It’s often found growing on slopes (in soil that’s not particularly rich) that are moist during winter and spring, but fast draining. I grow mine on a south-facing slight slope, in partial shade. The soil’s a bit rocky and has been amended with leaf compost. Large rocks nearby help keep roots cool and moist. During very warm and dry periods I give supplemental water, especially when they’re young.
For centuries, Native Americans valued bear grass and used it sustainably for basketry and decoration, and ate the roasted roots. Today bear grass is having a very tough time surviving with our myriad modern threats: Logging and other habitat loss, introduced forest pathogens and insects that affect associated species, fire suppression, and the floral industry that recklessly collects it for lucrative commerce (much of it is exported). If you know of a florist who uses bear grass, ask them where they got it and explain the disastrous ramifications if necessary. Never take this plant (or any other native plant) from the wild.
Bear grass is a fire resistant species that is often the first plant to grow after a fire. Like many other native plants, it needs periodic burns for strong new growth. Following a light fire that increases light, growing space, and soil nutrients, bear grass sprouts from its rhizomes, which lie just under the soil’s surface. But when fires are suppressed—often due to timber industry management—the result is fewer but much more intense fires that kill rhizomes, making it impossible for the plants to come back.
All these perils affect not only the species directly, but also its pollinators—nearly 30 species of flies, beetles, and bees, and possibly some butterflies, moths, and wasps. Besides pollinators, bear grass also provides food for rodents, deer and elk, and even mountain goats at higher elevations, as well as other habitat components, such as nesting material for birds, mammals, and insects—all of which are essential, interconnected ecosystem members. More info on conservation here.
Beargrass’s only close relative, X. asphodeloides, grows in the southeastern part of the U.S.
© 2015 Eileen M. Stark
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Bear Grass – Xerophyllum tenax
Edible Parts: Root.
Root – baked
MEDICINAL USES: .Ophthalmic; Styptic.
The roots are styptic. A poultice of the chewed root has been applied to wounds. A decoction of the grated root has been used as a wash on bleeding wounds, sprains and broken limbs. The washed roots have been rubbed to make a lather and then used to wash sore eyes.
OTHER USES: Basketry; Fiber; Weaving.
A watertight basket can be made from the leaves. This basket has been used for cooking food in. The fibers are split from the leaves and then used. The plant is also used to decorate baskets. The small leaves have been used to make dresses. The plants were burned every year. The leaves were harvested in the spring when they first started to grow out of the charred rhizome. Prior to using, the leaves were soaked in water to make them pliable, but if left too long they turned green. The dried and bleached leaves are used for weaving into hats and capes.
View photos of the edible and medicinal plant Nolina microcarpa (Beargrass), profiled in Medicinal Plants of the American Southwest, Sonoran Desert Food Plants, and Wild Edible Plants of New Mexico.
Nolina microcarpa (Beargrass)Nolina microcarpa (Beargrass)Nolina microcarpa (Beargrass)Nolina microcarpa (Beargrass)Nolina microcarpa (Beargrass)Nolina microcarpa (Beargrass)Nolina microcarpa (Beargrass)Nolina microcarpa (Beargrass) Nolina microcarpa (Beargrass)
A passage from Medicinal Plants of American Southwest:
Through a related saponin content, Beargrass’s medicinal effect appears similar to (though weaker than) Butchers broom’s (Ruscus aculeatus). Applying the ointment, oil, or salve tends to improve varicosities, spider eins, associated leg heaviness, and edema. However, using Beargrass in this capacity is still a work in progress. Being a fairly new application for the plant, further study and application are needed.
A passage from Sonoran Desert Food Plants:
The immature flower stalk is a fair edible. Early in the season, clip the stalk at its base when 1’–2’ tall and still flexible. Peel the outer skin from the stalk and eat the center material as is, or if bitter, chop, boil, and rinse it with fresh water.
A passage from Wild Edible Plants of New Mexico:
The stalk can also be wrapped in foil and roasted over coals. As the stalk ages, it becomes more woody, bitter, and soapy. Desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri) can be collected and prepared the same way as Beargrass.