Last week when I was on the south side of Queen and Wall Mountain I saw some interesting, grass-like plants. I had noticed it throughout the years growing on slopes in soil that’s not particularly rich that are moist during winter and spring, but fast draining.
The plant is often found growing on a south-facing slight slope, in partial shade. The flowering stalk grows up to 5 feet tall. It is tough, sharp grass-like leaves for a tussock at the base of the stalk, it is known as bear grass.
The plant was first called bear grass by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition, 19th century explorers of western America. At that time “bear grass” was a common name for yucca (commonly called soap-weed today), which bears a superficial resemblance to bear grass. Native Americans have used bear grass roots to treat injuries. Bear grass has also been long used by Native Americans to weave baskets and braid dried leaves to adorn them on traditional buckskin dresses and jewelry.
Bear grass, a common name for xerophyllum tenax, comes from observations that bears like to eat the young fleshy stems, although many other species 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, snap grass quip-quip and soap grass. It blooms from June to September depending on elevation.
Xerophyllum tenax has flowers with six sepals and six stamens borne in a terminal raceme. Xero is the Greek word for dry, phylum is Greek for plant, and tenax is Latin for holding fast, or tough. The plant can grow up to almost 2 yards 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.
The slightly fragrant white flowers emerge from a tall stalk that bolts from the base. When the flowers are in bloom they are tightly packed at the tip of the stalk like an upright club. The fibrous root can be eaten roasted or boiled. The plant is native to Idaho and found mostly in the Northwestern United States, from British Columbia to California and east to Wyoming.
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. Bear grass plant colonies typically only bloom every five to seven years.
According to Native American legend, a plentiful bear grass season corresponds not only with a good huckleberry crop, but also with the berries’ sweetness.
Enjoy summer and the beauty of Boundary County.