Beargrass: A Drought Resistant Treasure for Dry Landscapes
by High Country Gardens
Two Cold Hardy Beargrass Species for Western Xeriscapes
The genus Nolina is a large family of woody succulents native to the Northern Hemisphere. There are 28 accepted species with most of them occurring in Mexico. In Mexico, these tough, xeric plants are often large, spectacular desert trees with swollen trunks (used for water storage). Over the border in the United States, we have two especially cold hardy species: Nolina texana (Texas Beargrass) and Nolina microcarpa (Big Beargrass or Sacahuista).
Don't mistake it for another "bear grass,” Xerophyllum tenax, a native plant from California, the Pacific Northwest, and the northern Rockies.
Long Lived, Low Care, Drought Resistant Plants
These little known native plants are extremely useful in our xeriscapes. Both beargrass species have tough, sharp-edged evergreen foliage that grows in a vase-shaped form giving them a grass-like appearance. Both species have unusual flower spikes that fill with small seeds in the fall. Texas Beargrass blooms down in the foliage, and Sacahuista has a tall flower spike (up to 8 ft.) that is a favorite perch to hummingbirds and songbirds. And best of all, both species are extremely drought resistant once established and will thrive with very little maintenance.
Cold Hardy and Grows Across Much of the Western U.S.
Over the many years I've lived in New Mexico, I've encountered Nolina texana across a surprisingly large area of the state, and found it in eastern New Mexico growing at elevations up to 7,000 ft. Beargrass from these higher elevation areas are cold hardy to at least USDA 5 (-20°F), and probably zone 4. Nolina microcarpa extends its range in western New Mexico into the high mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico border, where it endures the bone-chilling winters typical of USDA zone 6, although I strongly believe that established plants are even cold hardier to zone 5.
Utilizing the Many Advantages of Planting Nolina
Unfortunately, Nolina is most often used by itself in hot, dry patches of gravel, segregated from other plants. Instead of planting Nolina in a solitary space, I recommend that Beargrass is more widely used as a durable companion for cacti and succulents, low growing woody plants, and other drought resistant perennials. Use it as a medium-sized evergreen grass since the foliage of both species makes a three to four ft. tall mound of grass-like leaves.
I like to plant Beargrass in patches of low growing shrubs. Here are some suggested companion shrubs:
Chamaebatiaria millefolium (also known as Desert Sweet or Fernbush) is a beautiful native shrub that brightens the garden in mid-summer with big clusters of bright white flowers. It also has attractive dried seed heads and olive-green foliage. Drought resistant perennial plant (xeric).
Dark Knight Blue Mist spirea (Caryopteris clandonensis) blooms with a profusion of dark blue flowers in late summer when few other shrubs are flowering. Its modest size makes it very useful in smaller yards. A fantastic nectar source for bees and butterflies. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
An outstanding selection of our western native sand cherry, Pawnee Buttes® is a low growing, groundcover shrub with a profusion of fragrant white flowers in early spring and showy mahogany-red foliage in the fall. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant. Prunus besseyi P011S is a 2000 Plant Select® introduction. 12-18" tall x 4-6' wide.
First Choice is a newer selection with particularly deep blue flowers and a more compact mature size than other Blue Mist spirea. Blooming late summer it is an invaluable nectar source for bees and butterflies. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).