Populations of beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) do not bloom every year. Colonies often tend to flower in 5 to 7 year cycles. Beargrass is also a “survivor species”, capable of surviving wildfires and are the first to sprout in scorched areas.
This native perennial can be found in British Columbia, Alberta, Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Its habitat is open yet shady forests and open areas from sea level to subalpine elevations.
A member of the Lily Family (Liliaceae), beargrass arises from short, stout rhizomes and grows in tufts or large clumps. The basal leaves are long, wiry, evergreen and tough with finely toothed margins. The leaves on the erect flower stem, which bolts from the tuft to heights of 2 to 5 feet, become shorter and shorter the further up the stem.
The terminal beargrass inflorescence is a dense, spikelike brush (raceme) of numerous flowers. At first the inflorescence is bulbous and nippled, elongating with age. Each individual, tiny, white flower is long stalked and has 6 tepals (structures not identified as either sepals or petals). The stamens are longer than the tepals.
The fruits are oval, three-lobed capsules with 2 to 6 small seeds per compartment.
The common name, beargrass, comes because bears eat the fleshy leaf bases in the spring. Others suggest because the flowers have an unpleasant, bearlike odor the name beargrass was adopted. You can choose which derivation you like. Common beargrass, squaw grass and Indian basket grass, among others, are alternate common names for X tenax. A synonym for is Heloniax tenax.
Aboriginal peoples made hats, baskets and capes from the long basal leaves and ate the rootstocks. Because the plant contains agents that check bleeding by constricting blood vessels, beargrass also had medicinal uses. The flower stalks are eaten by deer and elk, however, the plant is generally considered of little forage value.
The genus name, Xerophyllum, means “with dry leaves” referring to the tough, persistent leaves. The Latin “teneo” means “to hold”. The species designation, tenax, in this situation means firm or stubborn because the flower stem remains on the plant into the winter as a dried remnant.
These beargrass specimens were growing in June along the Babyfoot Trail in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness southwest of Grants Pass OR. The winter stem remnant was photographed in October on the Stony Brook Trail in the Six River National Recreation Area (Del Norte County CA).