Bear Grass, Resilient Rhizomes


Bear Grass (Xerophyllum Tenax) gets its name from the observations of bears eating the young fleshy stems and Grizzly bears using the leaves for their dens. Though not a true grass, other names for this plant include Indian Basket Grass, Deer Grass, Elk Grass, and Soap Grass.

Mount Rainier National Park from Ashford, WA, United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Identifying Bear Grass

Bear Grass is an evergreen member of the corn lily family, a group of herbaceous perennials. It primarily propagates through seed and its rhizomes, which send out a fountain of curved, wiry, rigid leaves. The edges of the leaves are grass like, with finely serrated edges, and can grow up to 3 feet tall. This tough structure allows the plant to hold on to moisture during drought seasons and remain insulated from frost.

brewbooks from near Seattle, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

 Bear Grass is a slow growing plant that takes a few years to establish. When it is fully mature, a sturdy flower stalk grows out from the center of the basal leaves. This stalk grows up to five feet tall and is topped with a crown of cream-colored flowers. These flower crowns bloom from the bottom up, giving it a range of different shapes as it matures.

Flower fragrance is variable, ranging from sweet to acrid. After the blossoms fade, the flowering plant will die back. The rhizomes however are long lived and by the time the plant dies will have put out offsets which will bloom when they mature.

Where to Find Bear Grass

Bear Grass is native to the Pacific Northwest, from Washington and down into California, and out into the Rocky Mountains. It is often found growing on slopes in soil that is not particularly rich. It prefers moist, fast draining soil. Bear Grass requires a great deal of sun. Considered a ‘pioneer plant’, Bear Grass is an early arrival that is then shaded out by larger growing plants.

Provincial Archives of Alberta, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

Like many other plants, Bear Grass needs periodic burns for strong new growth. After a light fire that increases light, growing space, and soil nutrients, the heat resistant rhizomes of bear grass put out new sprouts. In the season after a fire Bear grass is known to flower profusely. Being a fire resistant species, it is often one of the first plants to grow back after a fire.

Historical Use and Edibility

As it’s other common names may suggest, Bear Grass is valued by Native Americans for basketry, decoration, and weaving into cloth and rope. The leaves turn from green to white as they dry and take well to dying. They are tough, durable, and easy to manipulate into waterproof weaves. When dried, the flower stalk is a soft wood that can be used for easy fire starting, for survivalists out there who find themselves in need.

Murray Foubister, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Native Americans also valued Bear Grass for its rhizomes. These roots were roasted and eaten. Today, foragers either roast or boil the roots. Though not considered the primary use for Beargrass, as the roots can have a bitter taste. Boiling the roots with the top inch above the water or roasting thoroughly seems to dissipate much of that bitterness. The seed pods, before they open, are also good once cooked.

Conservation and Considerations

Right now, Bear Grass is struggling to survive in the wild. Though the plants are heat resistant to small fires, larger ones are hot enough to kill the tubers even underground and leave the rhizomes unable to sprout back. Logging companies suppressing small fires also damage the ability for Bear Grass rhizomes to receive the light and nutrition they need to sprout and flourish.

There is also an issue of the floral industry which collects Bear Grass for export.

GlacierNPS, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Many wild species of pollinators rely on Bear Grass for their flowers, and the plant provides food and shelter to rodents, deer, elk, and even goats on higher elevations. Always be mindful of what you take when foraging.

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Written by Taylor Calderon
Taylor Calderon is a freelance graphic designer and writer from South Texas. They have a passion for art, food, and living self-sufficiently. They enjoy writing on a variety of topics and issues, from sustainable living to botanicals and foraging, to travel and culture. To see more of their work, you can view their portfolio at www.flamingink.art

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