Glacier Centennial: Bears don’t eat beargrass

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Often considered the park flower, common beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) is one of the most popular wildflowers in Glacier National Park. Captain Meriwether Lewis collected a specimen in 1806 in Idaho and referred to it as a species of beargrass.

Flickr commons photo by Curt

Since this perennial, a member of the Lily family, isn’t similar to eastern plants named beargrass, Lewis’ rationale for the name are unclear. He did say that the horses wouldn’t eat it, and described watertight baskets made of the leaves and cedar bark by Native Americans.

In his book “The Old North Trail,” Walter McClintock reports that the roots of beargrass (eksisoke in Blackfeet) were ground up and boiled to stop bleeding from cuts and to fight the inflammation accompanying sprains and fractures by the Southern Piegan in Montana. It was also used to stop hair from falling out.

But bears don’t eat it, and it’s not actually a grass. Mountain goats eat the leaves and elk, deer and bighorn sheep eat the blossoms. Grizzly bears occasionally haul the plants into their winter dens for nesting materials.

Visitors to the park will find the creamy yellow, six-to-eight-inch dense raceme flowers on stalks up to six feet tall along the trails to Grinnell Glacier, Iceberg Lake, and Swiftcurrent Pass from June to August. The displays of this flower are often quite profuse, and few hikers with cameras come home without several striking photographs taken along forest trails and in sunny meadows.

When I worked in the park, we told guests that bears dried their paws on beargrass after trying to wash off the rather indelible juice from huckleberries. No doubt, today’s bellmen and bus drivers are still spinning a similar yarn.

If you’re planning a trip to Glacier during this centennial year and are interested in wildflower information, “Wildflowers of Glacier National Park” by Kimball and Lesica is a handy resource.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Malcolm R. Campbell, author of a mythic adventure novel set in Glacier National Park called “The Sun Singer.”

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8 responses

      • I it all works out OK I hope to make a number of visits to the park this year. If the skies clear for a few days I will make a short hike or snowshoe trip to the west side of Lake McDonald, although I’ve seen mixed reports of the snow levels there this year.

        I’d also like to get to Running Eagle Falls in the spring, and a friend has an idea for a hike from Bowman Lake to Kintla Lake in July or August. Interested?

        • I’ve never had an opportunity to get to either Bowman or Kintla. Ought to be a nice hike. Too bad I’m probably going to have to blow my already-nonexistent vacation money on replacing a car.

          Have some good trips!

          Malcolm

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