Our Glorious Grasses ~ Little Bluestem

Little Bluestem ~ Colorado County, Texas

Neither so stolid and stout as Bushy Bluestem, nor so light and ethereal as Gulf Muhly, Little Bluestem is a practical and self-effacing grass; throughout the growing season it fills the prairies with hardly a notice until autumn’s shorter days and cooler nights turn its color to a lovely and recognizable rust.

Backlit Little Bluestem ~ Diamond Grove Prairie, Missouri

Together with Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Little Bluestem  (Schizachyrium scoparium) is considered one of the ‘big four’ of the tallgrass prairie. Big Bluestem and Indian Grass typically grow to a height of five or six feet — or even more — while Little Bluestem, the shortest of the grasses, averages three feet.

Native in almost every state, Little Bluestem is well adapted to tallgrass, mixed, and shortgrass prairies. In Kansas, home to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, it can be found in every county. Outside of the preserve, a multitude of Flint Hills roads lead into open range, where walking out into the grasslands, reveling in the sights, sounds, and smells of an earlier time, is possible.

Open range ~ Chase County, Kansas

The roots of Little Bluestem help to keep soil  secure from the wind, and its stems’ ability to hold rain and snow close to the ground allow moisture to be absorbed rather than quickly evaporating. The decaying grasses also add organic matter to the soil.

Its sturdy, closely-packed stems protect innumerable insects, even over the winter. Many birds depend on its seeds for food, while ground nesters can be found beneath its protective canopy. The large grazing animals of the past, such as bison, once relied on little bluestem forage; even today, antelope, elk, and protected bison graze bluestem-covered hills.

Brazoria Wildlife Refuge ~ Brazoria County, Texas

In spring, the bluestem prairies are filled with flowers, but even in fall, taking the time to walk into one can be an unforgettable experience. I suspect the poet William Stafford walked into a few, and found there the inspiration for his poem, “At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border.”

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.
Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed — or were killed — on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.
Backlit Little Bluestem ~ San Bernard Wildlife Refuge, Texas

 

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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 Big Bird, Helping Endangered Birds

During a visit to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge last fall, I was surprised to see a small plane passing repeatedly over areas of the prairie. Its color — yellow — is one I usually associate with crop dusters, but I couldn’t imagine dusting refuge prairies with herbicides. Mosquito-spraying was my next guess, but there was no one around to ask, so I went on my way.

Early yesterday morning, I happened to be in the neighborhood, and took time for a quick drive around the auto loop. While I was busy stalking a Crested Caracara on the road, a low hum in the distance made me look up. It was the same yellow airplane, and a quick change of camera settings allowed me to catch an image of it.

I had been headed out of the refuge at the time, but curiosity demanded that I turn around, go back to the refuge headquarters, and look for an answer. The visitor center has been closed for months, but eventually a ranger spotted me nosing around the outbuildings, and came to see what I was up to. Her explanation of the work being done by the plane was both fascinating and wonderful.

The plane wasn’t spraying; it was dropping fire ant bait. [NOTE: after talking with a refuge employee this morning, I learned that the product being used is called Extinguish Plus, and it’s commercially available.] Fire ants are immensely annoying to humans, but they’re lethal to hatchlings. The young woman explained that, since the bait-dropping project began, the number of other insects on the prairie has increased, and so has the number of ground-dwelling birds. I didn’t see any of the prairie chickens during my visit, but an exceptionally large covey of quail crossed in front of me on Sunday: a visible token of the project’s success.

 

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Sunnyflowers

 

Specifically established and managed to provide native coastal prairie habitat for the endangered Attwater’s prairie-chicken, the 10,541 acre Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge is home to a wealth of other birds and plant species.

Driven away from the coast by a wealth of newly hatched and unbearable mosquitoes, I decided on Saturday to make a first visit to the refuge. Yesterday’s relatively long drive was worth it; the entire refuge was aglow with a variety of sunflowers, partridge pea, bitterweed, and a yellow ‘something’ that I’ve not yet identified.

From my vantage point on one side of the refuge’s lake, this flower-covered bank — no doubt a combination of species — shimmered in the high noon sunlight; its reflection in the water was lagniappe.

 

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As always, you can click on the image for a larger and more detailed image.

A Very Bushy Bluestem

 

While frost forms in the American midwest and trees take on dramatic colors in the northeast, changes in Texas grasses mark the season’s turning along the coastal plain.

One of our most dramatic grasses,  bushy bluestem (Andropogon glomeratus) grows both tall and full, its blue-green summer foliage becoming a rich, coppery brown as autumn ripens. Rooted in the Greek words for ‘man’ and ‘beard,’  both the genus name, as well as the less-favored common name of bushy beardgrass, refers to the long, soft hairs of its seed heads.

Native to the southeastern United States, parts of central Mexico, and the Caribbean, the plant can be found as far north as New England. Unlike other members of Andropogon, it thrives in moist soil, preferring areas such as roadside ditches, swamp margins, seasonal ponds, wet pastures, and river banks.

Generally, the full beauty of the grass emerges gradually, until its changed color and sunlit tufts of fluff dominate the surrounding landscape. But at least one plant at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge couldn’t wait, exploding into full autumn glory ahead of its companions.

 

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