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:
Buzz® 'Hot Raspberry' Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii) wakes up summer’s doldrums with splendid raspberry-pink flowers. Blooming from early summer to late fall, the sweetly scented shrub is a magnet for many pollinators, especially butterflies. This compact habit is perfect for smaller spaces, a lovely addition to a perennial bed or large container planting. The flowers and foliage make lovely bouquets.
Buzz® 'Midnight' Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii) is an exciting compact butterfly bush with magnificent jewel-tones of rich purple and blue flowers that shower the garden with color and a sweet honey scent from early summer to late fall. A powerful attractor of butterflies and hummingbirds, it’s also deer and rabbit resistant. A perfect easy-to-grow upgrade for the perennial bed, container, hedge, or border.
A native shrub from the southwestern US, Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus intricatus) features attractive silvery evergreen foliage for year-round interest and bird habitat. Its compact size and outstanding durability make it an excellent choice for hedging and xeric landscaping. In mid-spring, the shrub is covered in plumes of tiny pale flowers, which are pollinated by small native bees to create feathery seed tails that catch the afternoon light.
A stunning early spring-blooming shrub with pendulous clusters of pink flowers, 'Claremont' Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum) is an essential nectar source for bees and migrating hummingbirds. In fall, foliage shifts to a warm apricot hue. Also known as Winter Currant, this California native displays edible inky black berries that attract birds. This fragrant, showy shrub is a great choice for small yards and patio gardens.