While most beargrasses (Nolina spp.) look rather similar, two traits characterize every species in the group: tall, pale inflorescences and serrated, grass-like leaves.
Some species produce a thick, woody trunk-like stem, but others lack such structures entirely. Most of the 25 to 28 species assigned to the genus inhabit a range that extends from the southern United States to southern Mexico.
Beargrasses should not be confused with soap grass (Xerophyllum tenax), which is also called a beargrass by some.
Beargrasses are best described as perennial herbs, which produce leaves in crowded rosettes. In addition to their attractive growth form, many species – especially palmilla (Nolina microcarpa) – have a pleasing fragrance.
Drought- and fire-tolerant plants, beargrasses grow best when provided with ample, direct sunlight. In fact, beargrasses appear to be well adapted to periodic wildfires, and they often colonize areas that have recently experienced fires.
Beargrasses produce tall flower stalks called panicles, in the spring or early summer. Each panicle contains hundreds or thousands of tiny flowers. While most authorities believe that beargrasses achieve crosspollination via the wind (which partially explains their habit of producing tall flower stalks), the flowers attract a wide variety of bees, wasps and other nectar-feeding insects.
Once established, many beargrasses are capable of living very long lives in extremely harsh conditions.
Two Florida beargrass species manage to survive in relatively wet climates, but most other members of the genus are adapted to arid lands. Many survive in areas with less than 6 inches of annual precipitation, and most are capable of surviving in sandy soils. All beargrasses store water in their leaves to help them survive during extended droughts.
Several beargrasses are popular ornamentals, including a few California natives.
Parry nolina (Nolina parryii) is a popular ornamental that produces yellow to cream flowers in the spring. In some cases, the flower stalk of these attractive plants can reach 10 feet in height. Native to southern California, Parry nolina is one of the most desirable plants for those living in the Los Angeles or San Diego areas.
Palmilla– also called sacahuista – is one of the most popular beargrasses for ornamental plantings; many homeowners employ them as grass substitutes. Palmillas live for a very long time, and often produce multiple heads after several decades of life. When this occurs, each head typically emerges from a central “trunk.”
In contrast to several other species within the genus, which are relatively common and have respectable natural ranges, dehesa nolina (Nolina interrata) is a rare plant with a restricted range, measuring about 6 square miles in size. There are less than a dozen places that the plants grow, all of which are basically found in an area between San Diego County and the Baha California border.
Chaparral beargrass (Nolina cismontana) was once considered a subspecies of Parry nolina, but it has recently been elevated to the level of full species. As indicated by the species’ common name, they are most common in the chaparral habitats of the Los Angeles and San Diego areas, but they also grow in coastal sage scrub habitats.
Two Nolina species – Florida (Nolina atopocarpa) and Britton’s beargrass (Nolina brittoniana) — inhabit Florida, but both are currently very rare in the wild. In fact, both are protected in their home state and listed as endangered. Britton’s beargrass is in particular peril, and authorities have only documented 72 distinct populations. Unfortunately, those remaining populations exhibit rather limited genetic diversity, and clones may make up a large percentage of the current species.
The two species appear to be disappearing for similar reasons, namely habitat destruction and fire suppression. Both species are tolerant of wildfires, and they may actually depend on periodic fires for the continued success of the species; however, there is also some evidence that suggests they may persist for long periods of time without fire. More research is required to tease apart the relationship between these plants and wildfire.