Bear grass is a flowering perennial plant in the lily family. It can be found in many parts of North America, usually in the subalpine zone, although certain areas of low ground host it as well. A variety of common names are used to refer to the plant, which is known botanically as Xerophyllum tenax. The common names include elk grass, squaw grass, fire lily, soap grass, and Indian basket grass, some of which are clearly references to the plant's growth habit and uses.
This plant can grow up to 60 inches (150 centimeters) tall. The leaves grow in a tight cluster around a central stalk, and the flowers grow on tall stalks that jut up from the leaves. The leaves resemble long blades and have lightly serrated edges. The flowers grow in club like clusters of white, disc shaped flowers that also have a distinctive faintly sweet scent and are a familiar part of the alpine environment.
Native Americans used the leaves and roots of bear grass to make traditional baskets. These baskets often integrated materials from other plants to make colorful patterns, and they would have been strong and durable. Some Native Americans also used the grass to make protective caps for their heads. The leaves are also used in dried flower arrangements.
After an individual plant flowers, it dies, reseeding itself through the landscape. Bear grass also reproduces through the use of rhizomes, dense clusters of underground roots. After a fire, it is one of the first plants to return, since it puts up fresh shoots from the rhizomes. This makes the plant an important part of fire ecology, and it actually benefits from periodic burns.
The trend to suppress fires, rather than allowing them to burn, has led to a heavy accumulation of highly flammable undergrowth in American forests. This results in fires that burn much hotter when they are allowed to burn, resulting in severe damage to plants that normally thrive on periodic fires. Formerly, a fire burned quickly and lightly, consuming a small collection of flammable undergrowth before dying out. The raging wildfires associated with American forests are the result of human intervention, not nature.
In some parts of the United States, “bear grass” refers to other plants such as Nolina microcarpa and some plants in the yucca family. Many of these plants look similar to Xerophyllum tenax, leading to some confusion among people who are not skilled at plant identification. All of these plants can be used in gardening as a decorative plant, and some nurseries compound the confusion by labeling all with the same name.