In the Pacific Northwest, this perennial herb has been utilized by basket weavers for a long time. With great care and delicacy, individual leaves, and only a few from each plant, would be pulled from near each stem. It had, and still has, value to First Peoples cultures for decorative work on baskets and hats, and was and still is used as a trade item. This lovely scented lily can be found growing in the open meadows and forests of the Cascades and Olympics. It often grows almost as a companion plant along with mountain huckleberries and blueberries. I’ve had my closest encounter with a black bear in the midst of such a meadow in the Olympics, on the High Divide trail. At the time, I concluded that the bears’ love of eating these berries lent this companion grass it’s common name, but after reading Nancy Turner’s notes in PLANTS OF THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST COAST, stating that “Bears eat the fleshy leaf bases in the spring, hence the common name ‘bear-grass’, I see that I was mistaken. Bear grass is a very difficult plant to cultivate and one must only gather it with permission or permit.
Over twenty years ago, I found the plant in this picture growing in lowland area near Hood Canal. When I saw this place was about to be bulldozed for a housing development, I went ahead and dug out several small plants, wishing that I could also rescue the multitude of huckleberry bushes that flourished there. My husband lovingly planted the Bear grass in one of the more open areas of our canopy-forested garden, and one plant survived.
It is a great irony, when I drive by the area that I rescued this plant from. The place that was to be bull-dozed and developed, remember? Now, there is an ornate metal gate and a short stretch of pavement that goes nowhere. The land was completed clear-cut, scraped of all native plants and divided into 5 acre plots, which are still for sale. Not one house was built. And it has taken all these twenty years for this one bear grass plant to finally bloom. I pray heartily, that it’s seeds will germinate, though I know the chances of this are small.
When I work with young people, I do have hope that our culture is making a shift in what it considers to have value. Locally, I do believe that our mainstream culture is beginning to realize that the cost of restoration of our unique Pacific Northwest ecosystems is exponentially greater than the cost of preserving them, and our survival is dependent upon the web-of-life these places produce. Don’t we all drink the water, and breath the air? This is an issue that is ‘TO BIG TO FAIL’.