Ask most folks what a bear’s favourite food is, and “berries” are always among the top answers. Berries don’t generally show up until July, however. Before then, bears focus on Dandelions when things start to green up, and kinnikkinnik. Between the end of Dandelion season & the core of berry season, bears also take advantage of the roots of the fresh growing plants.
Time to dig!
Grizzly bears in particular are diggers; that’s where those super big claws and that big shoulder muscle that forms the hump come in handy. Bears dig for a lot of food, and leave a lot of evidence that they have been digging. The photo is of a black bear dig from June 2020. What are they digging for?
One of the plant families they like are various ones in the pea family. The common name of the most popular food is Sweet-Vetch, with the Latin family name Hedysarum. Grizzlies LOVE to dig for the roots of these plants, especially in the spring and fall out of berry season. In central BC, where there are fewer berries, studies have shown Hedysarum is actually their main summer food source. The pic to the left is Hedysarum. Like most patches of Hedysarum you’ll find in the alpine, it had old bear digs next to it.
Several family members
We have several types of Hedysarum, and they get a bit confusing with all the names (Northern, Mackenzie, Utah, Yellow, Alpine and Western are just some of the varieties here). We just generally call them all Sweet-Vetch. Grizzlies in particular have two they like, and you should get to know what those two look like.
The purple ones in the photo above are are Northern Sweet-Vetch, h. borale, the most common species in the alpine. They are, hands down, a Grizzly favourite. Northern Sweet-Vetch grows in not-particularly-dense patches and isn’t usually that tall.
We also have Yellow Sweet-Vetch, h. sulphurescens, which is similar, but are the taller, whitish-yellow flowers.They also live at lower elevations. They are pictured above right.
Yellow Sweet-Vetch tends to grow more solitarily. However, you can find patches of Yellow Sweet-Vetch. Later in the season (around mid-August) these plants will show their heritage and put out pea pods, and those are edible too. But bears like plants with DENSITY (lots of food in a small space means less work); there can be several hundred tasty roots in a patch, but there will never be that many pea pods. While they might eat the pea pods, it’s generally not worth their effort.
There is a similar looking group of plants called the Milk-Vetches, generally of the species Astralagus. We’ll look at those on a different page.
Edible, sort of
Bears aren’t the only ones who like Sweet-Vetch roots. The Indigenous peoples of North America ate Hedysarum. Sweet-Vetch can be eaten raw (they have a bit of a sweet, liquorice like flavour), or boiled, or baked, or fried — and then they taste like carrots. The Yellow variety is not nearly as tasty to us, so look for the Northern or Alpine subspecies (but no picking plants in the Parks).
See more of the pretty flowers of K-Country here!