squaw grass

Xerophyllum tenax

Xerophyllum tenax (syn. Helonias tenax) is a grasslike perennial in the family Melanthiaceae, closely related to lilies. It is known by several common names, including bear grass, squaw grass, soap grass, quip-quip, and Indian basket grass. It can grow to 15-150 cm in height and grows in bunches with the leaves wrapped around and extending from a small stem at ground level. The leaves are 30-100 cm long and 2-6 mm wide, dull olive green with toothed edges. The slightly fragrant white flowers emerge from a tall stalk that bolts from the base. When the flowers are in bloom they are tightly packed at the tip of the stalk like an upright club. The plant is found mostly in western North America from British Columbia south to California and east to Wyoming, in subalpine meadows and coastal mountains, and also on low ground in the California coastal fog belt. It is common on the Olympic Peninsula and in the Cascades, northern Sierra Nevada and Rockies.

X. tenax is an important part of the fire ecology of regions where it is native. It has rhizomes which survive fire that clears dead and dying plant matter from the surface of the ground. The plant thrives with periodic burns and is often the first plant to sprout in a scorched area.

This species was long used by Native Americans who wove it into baskets. Its fibrous leaves, which turn from green to white as they dry, are tough, durable, and easily dyed and manipulated into tight waterproof weaves.

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