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


Comments always are welcome.

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.

Comments always are welcome.

Autumn Snow


As summer begins to ease its grip on Texas, a lovely floral ‘snow’ suggests the coming of autumn. In the western two-thirds of the state, Snow-on-the-Mountain (Euphorbia marginata) covers much of the land. In the Eastern third (and north into Oklahoma), Snow-on-the-Prairie (E. bicolor) holds sway.

Snow-on-the-Prairie can grow to a height of three or four feet, and often forms dense colonies. Its long green and white bracts, open and airy, offer a pleasing counterpoint to surrounding grasses and forbs.

The plant’s long, slender bracts sometimes are mistaken for petals, but they’re actually  modified leaves. The flowers of Snow-on-the-Prairie are quite small, and exceptionally interesting.

Plants in the genus Euphorbia possess a unique structure called a cyathium (plural, cyathia) which contains both male and female flowers, as well as small structures known as bractioles, and nectar glands. Surrounding the flowers, bractioles, and glands, small bracts called cyathophylls — which superficially resemble the petals of a flower — provide additional color.

Here, the white cyathophylls of E. bicolor add to the plant’s ‘snowy’ appearance. Since the snow is only metaphorical, the sight is entirely pleasurable; it’s possible to admire this plant on the prairie without getting frostbite.


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An Especially Black-Eyed Susan

As summer deepens, many plants are completing their life cycles; this Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) on the Brazos Bend State Park prairie was well along in the process when I found it on the morning of July 11.

Despite being surrounded by still-blooming companions, it not only had dried and formed seeds, it also was providing support for a tendril from an unidentified plant. The combination of brown, red, and black, as well as the intricacy of the tendril’s growth, pleased me as much as the bright yellow flowers surrounding it.


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A Sure Sign of Summer

If I’m lucky, this Prairie Gentian will be only the first of many that I’ll find this year. Its scientific name, Eustoma exaltatum, points both to its ‘large-mouthed’ appearance (Eustoma) and to its height (exaltatum).  Other common names — Catchfly Prairie Gentian, Bluebell Gentian, and Seaside Gentian — all apply to this showy, purple-to-lavender flower that occasionally appears in white.

Before its flowers appear, the plant easily is identified by grayish-green, oppositely-arranged leaves that clasp the stems. Tolerant of salt and with a preference for moist conditions, the it can be found in salt marshes, wet prairies, and coastal flats from Florida through Texas, to California and northward.

A large colony of these flowers on the west end of Galveston Island fell first to the mowers and then to the developers, but this single bloom at the side of a west end road whispered a message: “Get thee to Brazoria County. I have friends there.”

Who could ignore a message from a flower?


Comments always are welcome.