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Blizzard of beargrass brightens mountain slopes

Ideal conditions have led to prolific blooming of the wildflower across region

Reports are coming in from Mount Spokane to Glacier National Park and beyond of beargrass blooming in such profusion the patches resemble banks of snow.

The name of the lanky flowers that rise from plumes of coarse grass-like leaves is a misnomer.

Bears have very little to do with the tall wildflower, and it’s not even a grass.

Beargrass, known to scientists as xerophyllum tenax, can grow 5 feet tall or more. It recently was split from the lily family, and placed in the melanthiaceae family, according to Denise Germann, spokeswoman for Glacier National Park.

Germann says a single plant can have numerous basal rosettes on a common root system, but each rosette will bloom just once. The lowest of the plant’s many small white flowers bloom first, leaving a dense knot of buds at the top that resemble a nipple.

The notion that beargrass blooms only once every seven years is an old wives’ tale, according to Germann.

“Beargrass can bloom whenever climactic conditions are ideal,” Germann says, and this year they’ve obviously been spot-on.

The name beargrass was first applied by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition, apparently because the plant bears a vague resemblance to soapweed, a part of the yucca family. Back in the day, soapweed was often referred to as “bear grass.”

It’s also been called bear lily, pine lily, elk grass, squaw grass and turkeybeard, Germann says.

Deer, elk, goats and bighorn sheep are known to eat beargrass, but not bears. Bears do sometimes use it as a denning material, however.

At Glacier Park, beargrass can start blooming in the lower valleys in late May, and continue into August in the high country.

And 2013 is one of those years where the blooms have busted out all over in the West Glacier area this month. If you’re headed that way, enjoy the sight, because it doesn’t happen every year.

This spring produced the right amounts of rainfall and moisture in the soil to lead to blooming beargrass virtually everywhere the plant is present in the West Glacier area.

Exceptional blooms also have been reported in areas of Mount Spokane, Idaho Selkirk Mountains, Bitterroot Mountains and Cabinet Mountains.

Mass blooms such as these occur every five to 10 years in these parts, according to Glacier Park managers.

Outdoors editor Rich Landers contributed to this story.