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Beargrass and yucca: two signature Montana plants

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News from the University of Montana 

MONTANA – Two particular flowering plants are the toast of late spring and summer in Montana. In the mountain forests and openings of northwestern Montana, beargrass – the official flower of Glacier National Park – struts its stuff along roads and highways, as well as throughout the wilderness areas in northwest Montana. Meanwhile, the sturdy yucca stands guard over the rolling land and river breaks east of the mountains. Both plants, so similar yet so different, are symbolic of the land they grow on. 

Beargrass has bell or egg-shaped plumes made of hundreds of tiny, delicate, creamy white flowers that balance gracefully atop tall, up to five feet, stems. The dark green, sturdy, grass-like leaves bunch at the base of the stem and are slippery if you chance to step on them while hiking. Indians used the leaves to weave baskets and clothing and used the plant’s pods for food. The flowering cycle for beargrass is once every seven years, and in a good season, they create magnificent seas of white. 

In the late spring of 1806 during their expedition west, Lewis and Clark discovered and named the plant. However, while traveling along the Missouri River above present-day Yankton, South Dakota, in Sept. 2, 1804, Clark’s journal entry mentions seeing “bear grass” (actually yucca) on the dry river plains. In those days, yucca was called beargrass, and since there is a great deal of similarity between the two, it may explain why Lewis and Clark applied the name “beargrass” to the mountain plant when they encountered it in the Rockies. Interestingly, it isn’t a grass and bears won’t touch it, but mountain goats will eat the leaves, and deer, elk and bighorn sheep dine on the blossoms. 

On the return trip from the Pacific, as the Corps of Discovery neared what would become Montana, they gathered samples of beargrass plants. On June 26, 1806, Lewis wrote: “There is a great abundance of a species of beargrass which grows on every part of these mountains. Its growth is luxuriant and continues green all winter but the horses will not eat it.”

During their long winter at Fort Clatsop in Oregon, Lewis noticed the Clatsop Indians making baskets. He recorded: “Their baskets are formed of cedar bark and beargrass so closely interwoven with the fingers that they are watertight without the aid of gum or rosin; some of these are highly ornamented with strans of bear grass, which they dye of several colors and interweave in a great variety of figures; this serves them the double purpose of holding their water or wearing on their heads.” 

It is for the construction of these baskets that the beargrass becomes an article of traffic among the natives. This grass grows only on their high mountains near the snowy region: “The young blades, which are white from not being exposed to the sun or air, are those most commonly employed, particularly in their neatest work.”

Of the beargrass samples collected on the expedition, two still exist: one at the Lewis and Clark Herbarium and the other at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew near London.

Also called “soapweed,” “Spanish bayonet” and, as we have just learned, “beargrass,” yucca blooms from a low cluster of long, pointed, spikey leaves. During the growing season, a tall stalk will emerge and produce large numbers (10 to 15) of substantial, 2.5-inch-long, greenish-white, bell-shaped flowers. 

Look for yucca in June or July, and while we associate them with dry prairie slopes or in badlands, these very hardy plants are known to thrive at elevations of 8,500 feet and survive winters of 40 and 50 degrees below zero. Hot sun and well-drained soil are this spikey plant’s friends, and only a very wet winter will damage it. Because cattle like the fleshy flowers and young seedpods, slightly greater amounts of yucca will be found where grazing pressure is light or moderate. And beware while hiking: the tips of the leaves are as miserable to bump into as a cactus.

Native Americans of the plains used yucca roots for making soap and hair tonic. The central stalks, flowers and seedpods were eaten, and the spiny sharp pointed leaf tips, often with the tough fibers still attached, served as ready-made needles and threads.

Y. glauca was first described for science in 1813 by the famous English botanist-naturalist Thomas Nuttall. Yucca is a native Haitian name, and glauca means “blue-green” in botanical Latin. Here in Montana, we have always considered beargrass to be the yucca of the mountains and yucca to be the beargrass of the plains. Luckily we are blessed with both.

We thank Wayne Phillips, a recognized expert on Montana’s plants and flowers, for his insight on these plants in his great book “The Plants of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.” This work belongs in everyone’s library.  

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