Our Glorious Grasses ~ Gulf Muhly on a Less Airy Day

In my previous post, I mentioned that two common names for Gulf Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) are ‘hair grass’ and ‘hair-awn muhly.’ Both refer to the light and delicate appearance of the plant: especially its tendency to blow about in the breeze.

Everyone can have a bad hair day, of course, and this ‘hair grass’ is no exception. When it’s been awash in fog long enough for droplets of water to weigh down its apparent weightlessness, the plant becomes attractive in a different way.

Both photos were taken on the same October morning at the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge in Arkansas’s Ouachita Mountains. In the first image, near-zero visibility fog meant very little light, and another common name, ‘purple muhly,’ applied. In the second photo, the fog had begun to lift, and the grass took on its more usual color.

 

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Our Glorious Grasses ~ Gulf Muhly

Gulf Muhly in the city

A favorite of both residential and commercial landscapers, Gulf Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) sometimes  is known as pink or purple muhly because of variations in its natural color. The species name capillaris, which means hair-like, gave rise to other common names that reflect the plant’s delicacy: hair grass, or hair-awn muhly,

The genus name Muhlenbergia honors Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg (1753-1815), an American born and German-educated Lutheran pastor who returned from Germany to live in Pennsylvania. Forced to flee Philadelphia ahead of British forces during the War of Independence, he hid in the countryside, where he became interested in the plants that surrounded him. He began collecting; by 1791 he had the nucleus of his Index Flora Lancastriensis, a work containing descriptions of 454 genera and over a thousand species of both native and introduced plants.

Muhlenberg was particularly interested in the grasses, so it’s fitting that a species should be named for him. Even the plant’s common name, ‘muhly,’ points back to that early botanist.

For years, I came across the grass only in urban areas: in home gardens, parking lot dividers, and hotel landscaping. I’d occasionally see a pink fringe running down a fenceline or a small patch of pink decorating a forest’s edge, but substantial stands of the colorful grass evaded me.

This year was different. While visiting the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge  in mid-October, I found rivulets of pink coursing through the land.

Light as it was, the grass bent easily before the persistent wind.

Sometimes, it mingled pleasantly with other plants, like woolly croton. Known scientifically as Croton capitatus var. lindheimeri, woolly croton is named for Ferdinand Lindheimer, commonly considered the Father of Texas Botany because of his own extensive collections. Finding the two plants nestled together was delightful.

Muhlenberg‘s grass and Lindheimer’s croton meet on the prairie

Nature planted this single bunch of especially pale pink grass in such a way that nothing obscured its beauty.

The fringes of the grass present a surprisingly different appearance.

When it comes to color, autumn Gulf muhly blooms like a spring wildflower, enlivening the landscape in a similar way.

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Our Glorious Grasses ~ Bushy Bluestem

A favorite photo of early blooming bushy bluestem at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

One of our most dramatic fall grasses, bushy bluestem (Andropogon glomeratus) thrives across the southern half of Texas. Unlike other species in the bluestem genus, A. glomeratus prefers sunny, moist locations; it often decorates ditches or fills low, damp fields with its unmistakable foliage.

During the growing season, the grass develops in pretty green bunches, sometimes tinged with tones of blue or copper. In autumn, its feathery plumes emerge — sometimes quickly and dramatically — showing why the grass also is known as ‘beardgrass.’ Eventually, it takes on an attractive rusty color that endures throughout the winter.

Like other bluestems, the grass is beneficial to a wide variety of wildlife, giving food, shelter, and nesting material to small mammals, insects, and birds.

A grasshopper gloms on to a sheaf of A. glomeraus stems at Bastrop State Park in October

Despite its bunched-up appearance and growth habits that sometimes make details hard to discern, its feathery seeds are extraordinarily pretty, especially when seen against a blue sky and still-green foliage.

A glimpse of autumn gold at the San Bernard Wildlife Refuge

 

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A Sign of the Season

At first glance, a storm appears to be rising behind this egret at the edge of Big Slough in the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge. In fact, the darkened skies were caused by smoke; given the pure blue skies in every other direction, the smoke was a clear sign of a prescribed burn taking place on refuge land.

The use of fire as a management tool benefits the land in a number of ways. It reduces competition between weedy and native species, allowing native plants to thrive; it returns nutrients to the soil, and improves wildlife habitat.

Many native grasses and wildflowers have such deep root systems they’re unaffected by fast-moving fires, and most animals and birds are able to flee. Burns are planned to minimize the threat to mating or nesting birds, and burn sites often are interspersed with plots that provide refuge for wildlife. Due to the fast-moving nature of such fires, animals such as mice, snakes, and lizards can burrow underground to escape.

For every burn, temperature, humidity levels, wind speed and direction, soil moisture, rain chances, and other factors are taken into account. Even the movement of smoke is important; planning always involves any communities that might be affected. (For a sense of the complexity involved with prescribed burns, this article from the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife is instructive. For a sample of a Texas Parks & Wildlife letter sent to burn ‘neighbors,’ click here.)

Because of the complex planning necessary and the possibility of rapidly changing weather conditions, burns sometimes are cancelled at the last minute. When the conditions are right, as they were the weekend of November 13-14, planners rejoice, and the evidence of their planning fills the skies. Because refuge and park lands are so expansive, it can be hard to pinpoint the exact location of a burn, but general areas are easy to spot: Galveston State Park, various refuges, wildlife management areas, and even a few parcels of private land.

A newly-ignited refuge fire seen from Brazoria County Road 208
A later view of the same fire from Hoskins Mound Road, showing different ignition points

The color and density of the smoke adds information for those viewing from a distance. The nature and amount of the fuel make a difference; newly ignited fires tend to billow, while a dying fire produces increasingly thin veils of smoke. The most memorable fire I’ve viewed took place at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge many years ago. In that instance, an absence of wind allowed billows of smoke to build so high that a small pyrocumulus cloud developed.

From time to time during the day, I stopped to watch the fires; by late afternoon, all were nearly extinguished. In the meantime, it was interesting to see them from different perspectives, rising above the same sort of plant communities that would benefit from their presence.

The next week, while crossing the Seabrook-Kemah bridge on Texas 146, I happened to look to the east, across Galveston Bay. On a far shore, more than twenty miles away, plumes of smoke were rising. Conditions must have been just right; some portion of the Anahuac Wildlife Refuge had been gifted with fire.

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Leaving and Leafing

Poison ivy ~ Toxicodendron radicans

Falling leaves, colorful leaves, leaves to rake and burn: all signal summer’s leave-taking. Here on the Texas coast, much of our seasonal color is produced not by vibrant and dramatic hardwoods, but by vines twining through the landscape.  Virginia creeper, dewberry, and poison ivy add a touch of color to the autumn palette.

On the other hand, autumn also is a time for trimming and clearing. With seasonal rains and warm temperatures often lingering into November, new growth is everywhere. Some appears green, like the leaves of this poison ivy vine growing up the trunk of a hackberry tree.

Other new growth is more colorful. Trimmed-back peppervine (Ampelopsis arborea) often fills ditches and woodland edges with its own version of autumn red.

In the midst of a local woods, this young willow oak leaf (Quercus phellos) also provides a bit of autumn color. Its elegant, starry shape would make it a perfect ornament for any Christmas tree, as well as a lovely addition to our celebration of autumn.

 

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