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What Is Bear Grass?

Xerophyllum tenax

Bears are known for their fur, claws, and ferocious roar, but did you know that they have a connection to a plant that can be found in the wilds of North America?

You might be surprised to learn that Bear Grass, with its long and slender leaves, is not only named after the mighty bear but has also been a vital resource for indigenous cultures for thousands of years.

In this article, you’ll discover why Bear Grass is a fascinating plant worth knowing about, where it grows, what it’s used for, and why protecting this valuable resource for future generations is important.

What Does Bear Grass Look Like?

Bear Grass, also known as Xerophyllum tenax, is a perennial plant that can grow up to six feet (1.8 m) tall.

Its leaves, which are long and slender, grow in a grass-like tuft at the base of the stem.

The stem is thin and straight, topped with a large, branched inflorescence reaching up to three feet (0.9 m) long.

Here are a few distinctive features that make it easy to recognize Bear Grass:

  • Stems are wood and thick and can grow up to 7 feet (2 m) tall.
  • Leaves can be up to 3 feet (1 m) long and 0.7 inches (2 cm) wide.
  • Leaves are tough and fibrous and often curl at the edges.
  • Flowers are cone-shaped with a head up to 1 foot (30 cm) long and 0.5 feet (15 cm) wide.
  • The flowers are covered with hundreds of small, white flowers with six petals each. The flowers bloom from June to August and attract bees and butterflies.
  • Bear Grass has a  pleasant, sweet fragrance similar to vanilla or honey.
Bear Grass Changes Its Look With the Landscape

Beargrass can vary in color and appearance depending on the location and elevation. Some plants may have darker or lighter leaves or more or fewer flowers. Some plants may have reddish or purplish tints on the stems or flowers.

Where Does Bear Grass Grow?

Xerophyllum tenax
Source: Wikimedia

Bear grass is a native plant of western North America.

It can grow in various habitats, from cool, moist meadows and bogs to dry, rocky slopes and open coniferous forests.

It prefers sunny or partly shaded areas with well-drained soil.

It can tolerate drought, frost, fire, and poor nutrients.

Geographical Distribution

Bear grass has a wide geographic range from British Columbia to California and Alberta to Wyoming.

It is most common in the Pacific Northwest, especially in the Olympic, Cascade, and Rocky Mountains.

It can be found at elevations ranging from sea level to over 6,600 feet (2,000 m). 

The Bear Grass is an important plant for the ecosystem and people there. It provides food and shelter for wildlife, such as elk, deer, and bears.

It also has cultural and economic value for Native Americans and florists, who use its leaves for basketry and floral arrangements.

Bear Grass and Wildfire Habitat

One of the interesting things about Bear Grass is that it is adapted to wildfire.

Bear Grass can grow quickly and abundantly after a fire in areas where wildfires are common.

This has led some researchers to suggest that Bear Grass may be important in recovering ecosystems after a fire.

Why Is It Called “Bear” Grass?

Bear Grass is called so because it is a common food source for bears. In fact, bears are known to dig up the roots of the plant to eat them.

Additionally, the large, clumped leaves of the plant resemble a bear’s paw, which may have contributed to its common name.

Other common names are Indian basketgrass, quip-quip, and soap grass.

Uses of Bear Grass

Bear grass
Source: Forest Service Northern Region

Bear grass has been used for various purposes by different people throughout history.

Here are some of the traditional and modern uses of this versatile plant.

Use #1: Basketry

Native Americans have long used bear grass leaves for weaving baskets and other items.

The leaves are strong, flexible, and durable. They can be dyed with natural colors or left natural.

Some tribes also use bear grass for making hats, mats, ropes, and clothing.

Use #2: Food

Bear Grass is not commonly eaten as a food source but is technically edible.

The woody rootstock of bear grass is edible and can be roasted or boiled. It has a sweet and starchy taste.

Some Native Americans also eat the young flower stalks and seeds.

Use #3: Medicine

Bear grass has some medicinal properties and can treat various ailments.

Some Native Americans boil the roots and use the liquid as a hair tonic or a sprain remedy.

The leaves can also be applied to wounds, burns, and insect bites.

Use #4: Floral Arrangements

Bear grass is popular in the commercial floral industry and is sold as a decorative green.

It can be used to create bouquets, wreaths, garlands, and centerpieces. It has a long vase life and a pleasant fragrance.

How To Keep Bear Grass Fresh in a Vase?

Here are some tips to extend the vase life of bear grass:

  • Cut the stems at an angle with a sharp knife or scissors. This will help them absorb water better and prevent them from rotting.
  • Remove any leaves that will be submerged in water. They can cause bacterial growth and foul the water.
  • Fill a clean vase with fresh water and add some floral preservatives or a teaspoon of sugar and vinegar. This will nourish the stems and prevent bacterial growth.
  • Change the water every few days and recut the stems if they look wilted or brown.
  • Keep the vase away from direct sunlight, heat sources, and drafts. These can cause the stems to dry out and lose their freshness.
  • Enjoy your bear grass arrangement for up to two weeks or longer.

Conclusion

Bear Grass is a unique plant that thrives in mountainous regions and has both traditional and modern uses.

While it is not commonly eaten, it has significant cultural and decorative value.

Its distinctive appearance and adaptability to different growing conditions make it a valuable addition to any garden or landscape.

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