There is a great abundance of a species of bear-grass which grows on every part of these mountains," wrote Lewis on 15 June 1806. "It's growth is luxouriant and continues green all winter but the horses will not eat it." He and his men must have seen it the previous autumn as they walked or rode horseback through the Bitterroot Mountains between Lost Trail Pass and Weippe Prairie, but this was the first time he had seen it in bloom, and the first time he could have compared it with the species he had known near his boyhood homes in the southern Appalachian Mountains.1
A clump of bear-grass with flower-tipped stalks rising from offshoots, on a ridge in the Bitterroot Mountains where the Corps of Discovery could have seen it in June of 1806.
About that name
Eleven other plant species share the common name, bear-grass.2 The ten in the genus Nolina more closely resemble the Spanish bayonet, or Yucca glauca, of the West. The eastern species, Xerophyllum asphodeloides (L.) Nutt. is locally known as turkeybeard. Where or when Lewis came to call it bear-grass is not known.3 In any case, his association of the Rocky Mountain species with its eastern counterpart, even on an admittedly superficial level, is one more example of his native ability as a naturalist.
It is truly, as Lewis put it, a "luxouriant" evergreen, often growing in large, dense patches among lodgepole pine, subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce trees at elevations above 5,000 feet. It is found in the Northern Rockies, the Cascade and Coastal ranges, and the Sierras as far south as central California. Every few years, in June and July, it propagates offshoots from a creeping underground stem called a rhizome (RY-zome, from the Greek word for root). They give rise to sturdy green stalks that brighten the subalpine forest understory with large racemes (clusters) of small, delicately scented, creamy white flowers.4 After the bloom is over, the offshoots die.
When applied to the gorgeous Xerophyllum (zero-PHIL-um; "dry leaf") tenax (TEN-ax; "strong, tenacious"), the everyday name is, as someone once wrote, "a thorough rebuke to the unimaginativeness of the human mind." A more descriptive name, a reminder of the plant's centuries-long commercial value throughout northwestern America, is Indian basket grass.
But in fact, bear "grass" is not a grass. True grasses belong to the Poaceae family (poh-AY-see-ee; from a Greek word for fodder), which is the most abundant flowering plant family on Earth, and a primary source of food, such as cereals, for humans and animals alike. All grasses have hollow stems divided by plugs or nodes from which two-part leaves grow in alternate arrays; their flowers are small and lack petals; and nearly all are pollinated by wind. The one thing Xerophyllum tenax has in common with any—though by no means all—of the nearly 650 genera and nearly 10,000 species of grasses, worldwide, is its long, slender leaf.5
The leaves of Xerophyllum tenax are scabrous (rough) to the touch and finely serrate (saw-toothed on their edges) from tip to base, but they are as slippery in the opposite direction as they appear in the photo above. One can imagine that members of the Corps, probably shod in moccasins on both of their hikes across the Rockies, occasionally found their feet jerked out from under them on those dense clumps of leaves that hid the short, thick end of the rhizome. Even a horse can lose footing on them, and one wonders whether bear-grass might have caused those accidents the Corps' livestock suffered while climbing up Wendover Ridge out of Lochsa River Canyon, injuring several animals and destroying Lewis's portable desk.6
The shape of the inflorescence of Xeroplyllum tenax before its uppermost flowers are open may have been the inspiration for the Coastal Indians' design of their rainproof hats.
Compared with its importance among Indian peoples of the Northwest, not only for hats but also for drinking cups and cooking vessels (using hot stones to boil water), Xerophyllum tenax is of little value today, commercially or otherwise. At most, some florists use the long-lasting evergreen leaves in flower arrangements. The craft of making or decorating baskets with them has not been entirely lost, but it is obviously of far less importance than it was when Lewis and Clark bought their new "hats of a conic figure."
The uses of bear-grass
Its place in the biotic community is still as viable as it has been for millions of years. Bears are said to eat the younger leaves, mountain goats reportedly feed on the leaves in winter, and moose tracks have been seen next to chomped-off leaves in early spring. Documentation of these anecdotes is hard to find, however. Elk are drawn to the flowers, stalks, and seed pods, and thus have lent Xerophyllum tenax another misleading common name—elk grass. Birds have been observed stuffing themselves on its abundant seeds in autumn prior to their migrations. Insects drink the flowers' sweet nectar, and incidentally pollinate them. Birds come back in blossom-time to feed on the same insects.
Naturalist Sarah Walker adds more insights into this plant's life story: "I've seen bird nests in and under the leaf clumps, and I've seen a neatly clipped arch-shaped entrance accessing the base of a leaf clump, where I believe a small animal made a home during winter, under the snow." Regarding the flowers' nectar, she writes, "I know it's flavorful, because I've made bear-grass wine and it was delicious!"7
1. Today Xerophyllum asphodeloides (L.) Nutt. is still found from New Jersey south to Alabama, and west to the Mississippi. It is classified as Rare in Georgia and Threatened in Tennessee. USDA-NRCS. 2004. The PLANTS Database (http://plants.usda.gov/plants). National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA. The specific epithet asphodeloides means "resembling an asphodel." C. Leo Hitchcock and Arthur Cronquist, Flora of the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973), 696. In Greek poetry and mythology, the flower of the asphodel, a native of the Mediterranean region, was associated with Persephone, wife of Pluto and queen of the realm of the dead. The plant was said to grow in Hades, where its roots were food for dead souls. In early English and French poetry, asphodel was a synonym for daffodil and narcissus.
Xerophyllum asphodeloides (L.) Nutt.
3. A. Scott Earle and James L. Reveal, Lewis and Clark's Green World: The Expedition and its Plants (Helena, Montana: Farcountry Press, 2003), 178-179; 237.
4. "Poaceae." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2004. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service (accessed 11 Feb. 2004).
5. September 15, 1805.
6. Personal communication, 6 February 2004.
7. Personal communication from Sarah Walker, April 3, 2004.
Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities.