Beargrass: The Lily Loved by Rodents, Humans, Goats, and Bears
by Lois Mason
Broadcast 12.15 & 12.16.2013

Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) in Glacier National Park. Photo by NPS (public domain).

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I am a native of south Georgia, so backpacking through the rugged Rocky Mountains is relatively new to me. A few years ago, I embarked on my first overnight backpacking trip to a beautiful, turquoise lake nestled atop the Mission Mountain Range just outside of Seeley, Montana. It was mid-June and the hills were alive with vibrantly-colored flowers. My camping partner, Paul, walked ahead of me on the trail, identifying birds and flowers as we came across them. Having my own talking field guide saved me from rummaging through a guide book and trying to locate each plant.

I was astonished at the variety and abundance of beautiful wildflowers that covered the harsh, rocky mountainside. I kept wondering how these seemingly delicate beauties could possibly survive Montana’s freezing cold winters and hot, dry summers. A plant with a green, grassy base particularly caught my eye. From the base grew a white stalk topped with thousands of tiny flowers that appeared to shoot to the sky. I learned that this was beargrass, an evergreen plant that blooms in three-to-seven-year cycles and can produce stalks reaching heights of up to six feet. Paul explained that, though commonly known as beargrass, it has a variety of colloquial names, including western turkeybeard, soap grass, and Indian basket grass. Though its flowers may seem delicate, this plant is equipped with features that help it survive through a variety of weather conditions. These adaptations make beargrass a useful tool for local wildlife and to people as well.

Beargrass has a couple of unique qualities that help it endure Montana’s extreme temperatures. First of all, beargrass has a thick-walled skin covering its grass-like leaves. This fibrous cuticle provides the plant with insulation in the winter months and helps it retain water during the hot, dry summer months. Another useful adaptation is beargrass’ ability to sprout from its semi-woody base known as a rhizome. Rhizomes are located just beneath the soil surface, and are responsible for housing proteins, starches and other essential nutrients for plant growth. This tiny factory assembles cord-like roots that it sends down into the soil and fibrous green stalks that it shoots to the surface. This method of self-reproduction is the plant’s clever way of surviving most of the forest fires that frequent Montana. Because the rhizomes are protected by a thin layer of soil, they are able to sprout new life into the black, ashen forest floor once a fire has passed.

Beargrass has a rich history of artistic and medicinal uses in Native American tribes. Historically, Native Americans used the wiry leaves in decorative basket weaving. The leaves are easily dried, dyed and then woven into unique patterns specific to the artisans of various tribes. The baskets were used in ceremonies as well as for harvesting foods, cooking, and storage. Some tribes still harvest beargrass leaves for weaving, but basketry is a dying art. As well as using the leaves, Native Americans also made use of beargrass roots. They could be boiled down and used on hair to achieve a glossy sheen, or boiled and eaten, or even ground into a fine paste and applied on sprains.

This hardy plant is also useful to wildlife. The clumps of beargrass that blanket alpine meadows trap fallen seeds from nearby trees. This abundance of seeds and the shelter beargrass provides make these meadows a prime location for tiny pocket gophers to feed. They can scurry through the grassy tunnels feeding in relative safety from predators. The presence of these little rodents in turn attracts birds of prey to the area. Though beargrass does not contain many nutrients, it can be useful to mountain goats when other food sources are limited. And bears also use the grass for denning material.

So the next time you spot this unique flower on a hike, you can appreciate its beauty in a new light. The plant you see may have provided a meal for a hungry mountain goat or denning material for a hibernating bear, or may someday even be woven into a beautiful artistic creation. While you are snug and warm by the fire next January, that plant will still be there, buried in snow.

 


Every week since 1991, Field Notes has inquired about Montana’s natural history. Field Notes are written by naturalists, students, and listeners about the puzzle-tree bark, eagle talons, woolly aphids, and giant puffballs of Western, Central and Southwestern Montana and aired weekly on Montana Public Radio.

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