Bear grass – also known as bear lily, elk grass, squaw grass, turkeybeard and fire lily, is a plant commonly found in many parts of North America. Closely related to the lily family of plants, bear grass grows best in mountain environments, it is a perennial with smooth, light-green foliage and a solid stem which produces flowers which have a cluster of small creamy-white blooms.
Bear grass is a striking plant well known for growing in harsh areas and for being one of the first plants to recolonate an area scorched by fire hence its alternative name of ‘fire lily’, this is down to its rhizomes (also known as rootstocks) which can survive fire underground and then sprout through the earth and bring life back to a desolate piece of land by encouraging other plants to grow, and by tempting wildlife. A bear grass plant grows up to around 60 inches (150 cms) in height and has leaves that grow in a tight group around the woody central stalk, when it flowers at about five years of age, the flowers grow on tall stalks which shoot up from the basal leaves.
It is a useful plant not only in nature, but in the domestic setting too. Bear grass was widely used by Native Americans (which is most likely where the name squaw grass originated) who would weave it into baskets and other household and storage items to use and sell. The fibrous leaves are long and thin which are ideal for splitting and weaving, they are tough and strong too, and transform from green to a pale cream colour when they dry out. Bear grass leaves are tough, durable, and take dye well, and are easily worked into tight waterproof weaves which of course meant that bear grass could also be woven into clothing items and bowls that could hold liquids. Along with the wide range of uses the leaves had, Native Americans would also eat the roasted rootstock which was highly nutritious.
The native peoples who used bear grass a lot would systematically burn the growing area each year to ensure the growth of new leaves for the next season; they would be harvested in early summer and used to produce their wares.
Bear grass is such an important plant biologically and socially, by bringing life to abandoned land, colonising wide, accessible areas of the country, and by providing food, clothing and an income for native peoples. It even makes sure the species thrives into the future, as when a bear grass plant flowers it subsequently dies, and in the process casts its seed through the local area to grow and keep providing its qualities.