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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Truly Wild Flowers

Carolina larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) ~ Rockport City Cemetery

If you think this larkspur seems unusual, you’re quite right. The mass of blooms, the unusually flattened stem, and the sheer size of the plant — nearly sixteen inches of floral exuberance — are clues that the plant is fasciated: a relatively uncommon condition that produces a variety of abnormalities in the plants it affects.

Sometimes, there is fusion or flattening in the plant — usually in its stem — that results in ribbon-like, coiled, or contorted tissue. Banding at the top of plants can cause them to increase in size and weight, while flowers and leaves growing on a fasciated plant’s flattened stems may be smaller than usual, or more more abundant, as with the larkspur I found at Rockport.

Fasciation has been attributed to a number of causes: genetic mutation, the presence of bacteria, fungi, or viruses; the activity of insects; or even weather conditions such as frost. Any physical damage to the growing point, or apical meristem, can lead to quirks in the production of new flowers, leaves, or stems.

Plant meristems usually produce the round or cylindrical stem we’re accustomed to seeing. In fasciated plants, the meristem flattens out and becomes elongated. Instead of producing a round stem, the mutation causes a flattened stem to develop.

A larkspur’s normal, cylindrical stem
The wide, flattened stem of the fasciated larkspur

Here, a fasciated and top-heavy Indian paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) shows off its own flattened stem and remarkable size while lying on the ground; unbroken, it had been brought low by the weight of its own growth.

This Brazoria County paintbrush would do for a really large canvas

Here, the banding typical of fasciated stems is obvious.

Looking more like a chrysanthemum than an Indian paintbrush, this remarkable collection of individual blooms and colorful bracts had grown to be more than six inches in diameter.

It may be a bit of a commonplace, but it’s impossible to see these botanical anomalies without saying, “Fasciation is fascinating.”

 

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A Bit of Bluestem Beauty

Little bluestem ~ Kendall County, Texas

Accustomed to seeking out autumn color in trees, vines, and shrubs, it’s easy to forget that grasses, too, can contribute to the pleasures of autumn and early winter.

One of my favorites, little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is named for the greenish-blue color its stems show off in summer. As the year progresses, blue transforms to various shades of rusty red, and prairies begin to glow with a special vibrancy beneath the rising or setting sun.

Whether found in ditches or pristine preserves, the grass is beautiful, holding its color throughout the winter for the pleasure of humans, and providing cover and seed for small mammals and birds.

Little bluestem against winged sumac (Rhus copallinum) ~ Diamond Grove Prairie, Missouri
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