While hiking on Browder Ridge I see a beargrass community in full bloom—rising like spears of white piercing in the forest understory. This year I also see the brilliant orange of tiger lilies intermingling and providing an exquisitely beautiful contrast. But I have a particular fondness for the beargrass plant and it teaches me like a kind of botanical bodhisattva.
Xerophyllum tenax is an other-worldly name for this alien-looking species in the lily family. The prevailing common name is “beargrass” as it is utilized by bears as a food source. The plant grows in communities that share an interconnected rhizome development. In other words, it spreads through its root system (and is dispersed through seed production). Even before it blooms, each plant has “babies” born from the underground rhizomes. The bloom, which only occurs about every five to seven years, is a magnificent white spear rising several feet above a spray of narrow spiny leaves. After a beargrass plant blooms it dies and feeds the surrounding community.
Beargrass is a study in good community development. The plant bears young throughout its growth cycle, offers fragrance of flowers to pollinators, and surrenders seeds to the winds— without any judgement. When it dies, it gracefully feeds other community members (and surrounding plants) with its decaying body. Its essence is absorbed through interconnection. It disappears so that others may live.
Nature teaches us about the natural way of life and death. She encourages us to be creative and regenerative while at the same time getting over ourselves. I suspect she is laughing at a species that, upon death, would bury itself in a decay-proof box.