It’s a good beargrass year. The slopes on either side of Hwy 83 are filled with their tall, crazy looking flowers. It’s worth taking a drive or hiking up a trail to witness how beautifully their white blooms decorate our forest-covered mountains.
Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) is in the Lily Family. Each stalk has hundreds of flower buds, which start blooming from the bottom of the stalk and bloom upwards to the top. Blooming patches of beargrass light the forest up as if they were torches. The fun thing is you can enjoy their display from early June into July by going up to higher elevations.
It takes years for one clump of beargrass to store up enough energy to create a blooming stalk. Once it blooms the clump dies back but the energy stored in its tissues is passed on to an adjacent clump. Colonies of beargrass bloom every 3 to 7 years, sometimes all the plants in the colony bloom at same time.
Bears eat the tender leaf shoots in early spring, but by summer those leaves get tough with sharp edges and the only ones brave enough to eat them are mountain goats. Rodents, elk, and bighorn sheep eat the flowers and seedpods and pollinators frequent the flowers. The large leafy clumps provide great overstory habitat for rodents, and grizzly bears sometimes use their leaves in their winter dens.
Beargrass leaves are an important weaving material for Native Americans. Native people used fire to revitalize landscapes and beargrass benefited from this practice. It is quite fire hardy. The new shoots, which sprouted up quickly after a fire, were sought after for weaving.
The purple flower currently blooming in the flat lands is camas. As you drive along Hwy 200 through Potomac you can see several purple-tinged fields off to the north. The purple is the camas flowers.
Camas, Camassia quamash, is in the Lily Family. The root of purple camas was a main food source for Native people on the western side of the Rockies up into British Columbia. It was a highly prized trading commodity, especially with tribes who lived where camas did not grow. The bulbs could be eaten raw but were usually roasted in a pit from one to three days, which turned their starches into fructose making the bulbs sweet.
A word of caution: There are two kinds of camas – purple and death camas – and they grow in the same habitats. Death camas contains strychnine and will kill you if eaten. You can only distinguish between the two plants when they are in bloom – death camas has creamy white flowers and edible camas is purple. So please don’t dig any up. It’s absolutely not worth the risk.
Camas was cultivated by Native tribes. Families “managed” the same camas fields for generations. The bulbs were harvested with digging sticks, the land burned with low-intensity fires, and death camas weeded out. Under this intensive care the camas prairies thrived.
But when white settlers moved West and began plowing under camas prairies, it robbed tribes of a major source of sustenance and presented a real threat to their survival. The whites' destruction of camas prairies on Nez Perce lands in northeastern Oregon and the US government's efforts to move the Nez Perce away from their lands onto a small reservation in Idaho led to the Nez Perce War.