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.