Growing Bear Grass (Xerophyllum tenax)

X. tenax up close

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.

X. tenax on Larch MountainBear 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, 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, 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.Xerophyllum tenax (foliage)

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 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 X. tenaxacross 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 and well drained the rest of the year. 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.

Conservation

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 that uses bear grass,  ask them where they got it and explain the disastrous ramifications.

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.

X. tenax closeWildlife value
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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9 thoughts on Growing Bear Grass (Xerophyllum tenax)

    1. Thanks for your question. Bear grass generally does best when planted in areas where it naturally occurs (or occurred historically) and with associated native plants. To find out if bear grass naturally occurs in your county, go to http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=xete and zoom in. This Forest Service page lists ecosystems and plant associations: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/forb/xerten/all.html. If your spruce trees are native (http://oregonstate.edu/trees/conifer_genera/spp/spruce_spp.html) that would help, but I don’t think it’s essential. I imagine if the shade from the trees isn’t too heavy and there is at least some dappled sunlight, they might do fine, but consider incorporating some other associated natives if you haven’t already. Best of luck!

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  1. I’ve been trying to find this plant in local native plant nurseries but am having zero luck. Really would like to plant some to (eventually) harvest leaves for basketry. I do have your book and have contacted all the nurseries in my area (Vancouver island). Fingers crossed I’ll come across some soon!

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  2. I live a bit west of Port Angeles. Bear Grass is supposedly native here but nearly non existent…I would like to propagate it and plant on my farm and local roadsides. Where can I get seed or starts?

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    1. Sorry, I don’t know which nurseries would carry them, but you might query Inside Passage Seeds; there’s also a list of nurseries at the back of my book as well, but few are close to you. Also check out Native Seed Network run by the Institute for Applied Ecology, although their website seems to be down right now. I strongly recommend only using plant material that originated near your area to prevent outbreeding depression and help them thrive in the local conditions. -ES

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  3. Seems to me that this year was really a bumper crop and other years not so much. Do they, can they bloom every year and what makes some years more abundant. I recall someone told me once that they bloom every seven years but I’ve not been able to verify that.
    Thanks, I LOVE beargrass, Pam

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    1. Very moist springs (which we had this past spring) and lingering moisture in summer are the key to those huge drifts of bear grass in bloom (and probably having clumps that are mostly the same age). According to my research, they bloom once after many years (I think mine was 5 or 6 years old) and then die, but the plant may live on via offshoots at the base, or it may self-sow. I’ve heard of that seven-year idea, but I don’t think it’s quite that exact! :)

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