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Beargrass

A collection of beargrass grows outside Hungry Horse, Montana.

After so much moisture this past winter, it has been a good year for beargrass. Along the shores of McDonald Lake in Glacier National Park, beargrass litters the forests. Cindy and I stayed in an RV park near Hungry Horse, Montana, where these white flower heads lit up shady areas among conifers.

Much confusion surrounds this glorious, flowering plant. It is bad enough that beargrass is not a grass, but also bears do not eat it. The confusion began with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which saw the plant on Lolo Pass in Idaho. On June 15, Captain Lewis wrote in his journal “There is a great abundance of a species of bear-grass which grows on every part of these mountains.”

The confusion stems from yucca, or soapweed, which is commonly called beargrass and Captain Lewis was likely referring to Eastern soapweed. Other common names for this plant include bear lily, pine lily, elk grass, soap grass, quip-quip, and Indian basket grass. Perhaps the oddest is its second-most common name, Western turkeybeard. People cannot even agree if the proper name is beargrass or bear grass.

Beargrass commonly grows three to four-feet tall and can reach five feet in height. A rosette of basal leaves forms a mound, which is easily found under light snow. I have been walking across a forest slope covered with a couple inches of snow, when one step on a hidden, slippery beargrass clump resulted in a slide downhill. Anyway, a flower head full of hundreds of white flowers climbs from the center of the clump. It grows in open forests and meadows from Alberta and northwestern Wyoming, west to the Pacific Ocean. It does particularly well in burned areas. Blooms begin soon after the snow melts in late May at lower elevations and continue into August at alpine locations. Bighorn sheep, mountain goats and deer eat the flowers and pine grosbeaks eat the seeds.

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The last big proliferation of beargrass in Glacier was in 2013. It is wrong to say beargrass blooms every seven years. A good year for beargrass has more to do with a wetter year and a deep snowpack, like Glacier and the entire West had this spring.

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