It's big, snow white, and puffy, and it's blooming in Glacier National Park.
"It," of course, is Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax), a common wildflower found in Glacier National Park. This year the acres of the wildflower have produced prolific blossoms, especially near park headquarters on the west-side of the park.
Beargrass is not a grass, but a member of the Melanthiaceae family (recently split from the lily family). The plant is native to Montana, but can also be found in subalpine meadows and coastal mountains throughout the Pacific Northwest, extending from British Columbia to northern California and eastward to Alberta and northwestern Wyoming.
Beargrass can grow up to five feet in height with long and wiry, grass-like basal leaves at the base of the stalk and a cluster of small, dense white flowers at the top. Bears do not eat the plant, but they will use leaves as denning material. Sheep, deer, elk, and goats are known to eat beargrass.
Beargrass can bloom whenever climatic conditions are ideal, not necessarily every seven years as common myth suggests. A single plant may have numerous basal rosettes on a common root system.
Each rosette will bloom only once. Factors for abundant plant blooming include ideal amounts of spring rainfall and moisture present in the soil.
While some beargrass can be found blooming every year, park managers note that mass blossoming of beargrass typically occurs every five to ten years in Glacier National Park. Blooming can begin in late May in lower elevations and continue into August in the high country.
The plant was first called beargrass by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition, 19th century explorers of western America. At that time “Bear grass” was a common name for yucca (commonly called soapweed today), which bears a superficial resemblance to beargrass.
Native Americans have used beargrass leaves for basket weaving and roots were used to treat injuries. Other common names for this plant include bear lily, pine lily, elk grass, squaw grass, and turkeybeard.
Visitors are encouraged to experience the abundance of beargrass in Glacier National Park this year, but are reminded that picking flowers or collecting plants is prohibited within the park.