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Boerne Chapter

Nolina — the “bunch grass” that isn’t grass

Author: Bill Ward

Operation NICE! (Natives Instead of Common Exotics!) selection for November is nolina or sacahuista, the “bunch grass” that isn’t a grass. Nolina texana commonly is called beargrass, bunch-grass, or basket grass, but it is a member of the agave family, making it a cousin of yucca, sotol, and century plant.

Bunch grass with 3 clusters of white flower blossoms
“Beargrass” blooming during past spring.

Nolina texana grows as a two-foot-high mound of numerous long, very slender leaves. It is a commonly cultivated evergreen landscape plant that is suitable for both shady and sunny settings. My neighbor Clark Terrell uses it effectively as a handsome erosion-control plant in his very steep front yard. Once established it is highly drought tolerant, needs no fertilizer nor pesticides, and is deer resistant. Nolinas can be used as accent plants in yards instead of bunch grass or pampas grass.

In this part of the Hill Country, Nolina texana can be found growing out of rocky slopes in full sun as well as hanging from limestone ledges along shaded stream canyons. The almost-rounded leaves are only about a tenth of an inch wide and up to four feet long. Patty Leslie Pasztor, the naturalist and native-plant authority, told me that Native Americans used nolina leaves for making baskets, thatching, and ties for bundles.

In the spring, stalks of pinkish cream-colored blooms stay low, almost hidden within the thick mound of leaves. Reportedly, the tiny flowers are poisonous to livestock.

Nolina texana grows wild in Central, Southwest, and Trans-Pecos Texas, as well as New Mexico and northern Mexico. The other nolina found in our area is restricted only to south Central Texas and the southern Edwards Plateau. This is Nolina lindheimeriana, also known as ribbon-grass, devil’s shoestring, or Lindheimer’s nolina.

Bunch grass with 3 clusters of white flower blossoms
“Beargrass” blooming during past spring.

It is easier to tell that Lindheimer’s nolina belongs to the agave family. It is more yucca-like with numerous narrow, flat leaves, not so numerous and thin as those of Nolina texana. Leaves of Nolina lindheimeriana are about a quarter inch wide and less than three feet long. Also Lindheimer’s nolina sends up taller bloom stalks, with the blooms well above the leaves. Last year, one plant in our backyard had eight bloom stalks, each about four feet long with many tiny white blooms over much of the length of the stalk.

This nolina does well in well-drained soil in part shade or full sun. It can be used in landscapes where small yuccas would be appropriate. Once established it requires very little if any watering. It is cold tolerant and stays green all year.

The four nolina plants in our yard prove that both of the locally-native nolinas grow just fine in poor and unfertilized soil without watering. They are perfectly NICE! plants.

The Boerne Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas provides free planting and care instructions for nolinas at Boerne nurseries participating in Operation NICE! (Hill Country African Violets and Nursery and Maldonado Landscape and Nursery), as well as at Cibolo Nature Center.

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About the Region

New Braunfels, the location of our Fall 2024 Symposium, straddles both the Edwards Plateau Ecoregion and the Blackland Prairie ecoregion. Interstate 35 divides the city of New Braunfels; its path through the city closely parallels the boundary of these two ecoregions, with the Edwards Plateau on the west side and the Blackland Prairies region to the east. The Edwards Plateau area is also called the Hill Country; however, this general term covers a much larger area extending farther north. Spring-fed creeks are found throughout the region; deep limestone canyons, rivers, and lakes (reservoirs) are common. Ashe juniper is perhaps the most common woody species found throughout the region. Additional woody species include various species of oak, with live oak (Quercus fusiformis) being the most common. Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) border waterways. This area is well known for its spring wildflower displays, though they may be viewed in spring, late summer, and fall, as well. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, average annual rainfall in the Edwards Plateau ranges from 15 to 34 inches.

The Blackland Prairie extends from the Red River south to San Antonio, bordered on the west by the Edwards Plateau and the Cross Timbers, and on the east by the Post Oak Savannah. Annual rainfall averages 30 to 40 inches, with higher averages to the east. This region is dominated by prairie species. The most common grass species include little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the uplands and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) in the riparian areas and drainages. Common herbaceous flowering plants include salvias, penstemons, and silphiums. This area has suffered greatly from overgrazing and agricultural use. Few intact areas remain, though many of the plants can be found along county roadsides throughout the region.

Our four host chapters (New Braunfels, Lindheimer, Guadalupe, and the Hill Country chapters) are located in one or both of the ecoregions above. However, the eastern portion of Guadalupe County also falls within the Post Oak Savanna ecoregion. Annual rainfall averages 35 to 45 inches, with higher averages to the east. A wide variety of hardwood trees are found, including several species of oaks, elms, and in the Bastrop area, loblolly pine (Pinus taeda). Grasses and forbs dominate in the open savannas, with most common grass being little bluestem. Ranching, agriculture, and fire suppression have allowed woody species to encroach on the once-open savannas.

Source: Wildflowers of Texas by Michael Eason