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What is Bear Grass?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is bear grass, and where can it be found?

Bear grass, known scientifically as Xerophyllum tenax, is a perennial herb native to mountainous regions of North America. It thrives in open forests and meadows, particularly in the western United States. Bear grass is recognized by its tall, dense flower stalks and long, narrow leaves, which can persist for several years.

Is bear grass actually related to bears or grass species?

Despite its name, bear grass is neither a true grass nor directly related to bears. The name may originate from observations of bears eating the young stalks. Botanically, it belongs to the family Melanthiaceae and is more closely related to lilies than to grasses, which are in the family Poaceae.

How does bear grass benefit the ecosystem?

Bear grass plays a significant role in its ecosystem by providing food and habitat for various wildlife species. Its flowers are a nectar source for bees and butterflies, while the dense foliage offers shelter for small animals. The plant's adaptability to fire-prone areas also helps stabilize soil and regenerate the landscape post-wildfire.

Can bear grass be used for any practical purposes by humans?

Historically, Native American tribes have utilized bear grass for its strong, flexible leaves, weaving them into baskets, hats, and other items. The plant's durability and resistance to rot make it an excellent material for such crafts. Additionally, bear grass is sometimes used in landscaping for its aesthetic appeal and low maintenance.

Does bear grass have any medicinal properties?

While bear grass is not widely known for medicinal uses, some Native American tribes have used it traditionally for various remedies. For instance, they have employed bear grass poultices to treat burns and wounds, indicating its potential antiseptic properties. However, these uses are not widely supported by modern medical research.

Is bear grass endangered, and what conservation efforts are in place?

Bear grass is not currently listed as an endangered species. It is relatively abundant in its native habitat. However, conservation efforts focus on protecting its natural environment from overdevelopment and maintaining the health of ecosystems where bear grass is a key species. Responsible harvesting practices are also encouraged to ensure its sustainability.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon37558 — On Jul 20, 2009

where can i get bear grass?

By anon36329 — On Jul 11, 2009

How was it named bear grass, or why?

By t41rt42 — On May 24, 2009

How do you kill bear grass?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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