Monday, September 23, 2019

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) Heaven in New Hampshire

Schizachyrium scoparium (Little Bluestem)

I've always had a soft spot for Schizachyrium scoparium (Little Bluestem). Not only is this species quite handsome (with some cultivars making the transition to spectacularly beautiful), but this was one of the major components of the tall grass prairies that used to dominate the American landscape, before settlers originally from Europe arrived and converted the rich lands to another type of grassland (maize fields).

Schizachyrium scoparium (Little Bluestem)
Little Bluestem on roadway
The first time I encountered Schizachyrium scoparium was in the White Sands Monument in New Mexico, where I stumbled on individual specimens. But on a trip to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, I finally saw entire fields of the grass.

Schizachyrium scoparium - Little Bluestem Grass
Little Bluestem creating carpet along side of road
Schizachyrium scoparium dominated many of the roadsides in the area, the straight and tall grass forming red monoculture carpets on the sides of highways and local streets.

Schizachyrium scoparium - Little Bluestem Grass
Little Bluestem carpet a scenic view lot
This was very evident along route 302 from the town of Caroll to Crawford Notch State Park, and even in the islands and sides of Interstate 93. Schizachyrium scoparium was also present along Main Street of the town of Lincoln, NH, especially near the entranceway to Interstate 93.

I even found S.scoparium lining the steel barriers along a railroad track!

Schizachyrium scoparium - Little Bluestem Grass
Little Bluestem along railroad tracks
It was obvious that masses of the grass along the roadside were regularly mowed. Some of the mowed grass had  a reddish tinge to them, and in some areas single blades of Little Bluestem that had been missed by the mower rose into the roadway like lonely sentinels.

Schizachyrium scoparium - Little Bluestem Grass
Unmowed Little Bluestem along Main Street
The species was noticeably absent in deep forest, as well as in higher elevation areas, although I found a few specimens slightly into the UNH Trail along State Route 122, east of Lincoln.

Schizachyrium scoparium - Little Bluestem Grass
Red culm of Little Bluestem
Little Bluestem is also fairly easy to identify. It stands up to around 1 meter tall, with thin erect blades and reddish culms (at least in the Autumn).

Schizachyrium scoparium - Little Bluestem Grass
Ligule of Little Bluestem
The ligule is membranous, and the fluffy white seed heads that rise in zip zag fashion is another identifier of the species.

Schizachyrium scoparium - Little Bluestem Grass

Schizachyrium scoparium - Little Bluestem Grass
Seedheads of Little Bluestem
The anthers and feathery stigmas are purplish in color and quite tiny, perhaps at most 2 mm in length. I had a great time taking in situ macro shots of the beautiful spikelets,with the sharp pointed glumes.

Schizachyrium scoparium - Little Bluestem Grass

Schizachyrium scoparium - Little Bluestem Grass
Stigma and Anthers of Little Bluestem
All in all, I had a great time documenting the presence of this species in the White Mountains area of New Hampshire, and I noticed that Little Bluestem was still prevalent as you made your way south along Interstate 93 and other highways, with remnants showing up in Connecticut as well.

It is a handsome species, and I can only imagine with longing what immense fields of this and other tallgrass prairies plants must have looked like before the coming of the Empire of Maize ;-)

Little Bluestem on side of road

Friday, September 13, 2019

Micromoon on Red Cogon Grass (September 13, 2019)

The moon tonight is being called a "micromoon" because it appears just a bit dimmer than usual. This is because it is at apogee, or its farthest distance from Earth, and thus appears about 14% smaller and 30% dimmer than when it is at its closest point to Earth, which is known as the perigee.

It was a cloudy night, but I managed to take a pic of tonight's very unusual "micromoon" behind a stand of red cogon grass (Imperata cylindrica 'Red Baron'). Interestingly enough, because of some minor trembling of my arm it just so happened that the moon was distinctly heart shaped in the picture!

I used a shutter speed of 1/1.3 and an aperture of f22 to get the pic.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Arundo donax: An Unexpected Discovery in New Jersey

Arundo donax
Arundo donax in Morristown, NJ
A year ago, I was at the National Arboretum in Washington, DC in the dead of winter. I was there mostly for the Bonsai displays, but it turned out the arboretum also had an entire section set aside for ornamental and  lawn grasses.

Arundo donax
Arundo donax in Wasgington, DC
While strolling through this section, I suddenly came upon the dried remains of an absolutely amazing grass specimen.

The grass was so tall that it almost matched the height of a nearby tree! This would not have been that much of  a rarity if it was a bamboo, but this species was most definitely not of the subfamily Bambusoideae.

I managed to find the label for the specimen, and found out it was Arundo donax, which at the time was new to me. This species is also known by a host of common names, including carrizo, arundo, Spanish cane, Colorado river reed, wild cane, and giant reed.

Arundo donax

Now fast forward more than a year later. I was in the Frelinghuysen Arboretum  in Morristown,  New Jersey, and I was suddenly  again confronted by the enormous 6 meter tall plant!

I really did not expect the grass to survive at such a high latitudes, but  there it was right in front of me, towering over a wooden bench and nearby parked cars.

Arundo donax

Arundo donax is one of the fastest growing plants, and it is able to add up to 10 cm to its height everyday (Dudley et al, 2008). It is also one of the most invasive grasses around in riparian ecosystems, able to outcompete both herbaceous and woody vegetation after a fire (Coffman et al, 2010).

The interesting thing about its competitiveness though, is that unlike many of the invasive grasses, it is a C3 plant, which normally is not as efficient and productive as C4 plants. Researchers found that its dominance and productivity was actually due to its highly active Rubisco enzyme, which is the main enzyme involved in photosynthesis, and which results in the species having a photosynthetic  capacity similar to C4 grasses  (Weber et al, 2016).

I encountered this species again on a trip to New Mexico in September 2019, when I noticed that they were growing along the walls of some homes in Albuquerque. In this case, I was driving when I  noticed grasses that seemed to reach all the way to the electrical lines!

I know that A. donax is considered an invasive grass (although there are plans to harness its productivity for bioenergy projects), but it really is quite an interesting  species. I look forward to encountering it more (and when flowering) in the future.


Coffman, G., Ambrose, R., Rundel, P., 2010. Wildfire promotes dominance of invasive giant reed (Arundo donax) in riparian ecosystems. Biol. Invasions 12, 2723-2734.

Dudley, T.L., A.M. Lambert, A. Kirk, and Y. Tamagawa. 2008. Herbivores of Arundo donax in California. Pages 146-152 in Proceedings of the XII International Symposium on Biological Control of Weeds. Wallingford, UK: CAB International.

Webster R, Driever S, Kromdijk J, McGrath J, Leakey A, Siebke K, Demetriades-Shah T, Bonnage S, Peloe T, Lawson T, & Long S.. High C3 photosynthetic capacity and high intrinsic water use efficiency underlies the high productivity of the bioenergy grass Arundo donax, Scientific Reports (2016).

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Ornamentals at White Rock Visitor Center, New Mexico

I love it when ornamental grasses are used, and I was happy to see that the White Rock Visitor Center in White Rock, New Mexico had been decorated with some very nice specimens when I visited there in September 2019.

During the summer months, the visitor center hosts the shuttle to Bandelier National Monument, and so you have a lot of visitors passing through its grounds.

In addition to Calamagrostis, the center had planted some towering 2-3 meter tall grasses (Saccharum ravennae) with purple inflorescence, and reddish colored stems. Most of the planted individuals were relatively new, as a quick look at Google Street View from 2016 showed that only one Saccharum ravennae specimen was present at that time.

*Thanks to Scott Weber on the Planet Ornamentals Facebook group for the ID of Saccharum ravennae.

Saccharum ravennae

Saccharum ravennae

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Sporobolus airoides (alkali sacaton) in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Sporobolus airoides - Alkali Sacaton
Sporobolus airoides specimen next to dune
I visited the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico in September 2019 in order to see some of the tenacious grasses that have managed to gain a foothold in this rugged environment, and I wasn't disappointed.

The dunes themselves were eerily beautiful, an otherworldly world of towering white sand dunes that stretched away for kilometers in all directions. The origin of this natural wonder lies several hundred million years in the past, when the continents still formed the massive landmass called Pangaea. During this time, the area that would become southern New Mexico was covered by a shallow sea called the Permian Sea. The rise and fall of the sea level at this time created layers of gypsum and other minerals on the sea floor. Over the next several million years the bottling up of the Tularosa Basin where the monument lies, the deposition of more minerals from the surrounding mountains, and the final drying of the lake (Lake Otero) that covered the basin slowly resulted in t he creation of the White Sands Monument that people see today.

You can learn more about the origins of the monument here.

The environment in the dunes is a harsh one for any organism trying to live on it. Not only does the sand shift and threaten to bury plants that take root in it, but water is usually at a premium and the very high salt concentrations in the gympsum sand make it toxic to most plants.

Nevertheless, I found many plants living in the relatively flat areas between dunes. Chief among them was Sporobolus airoides, which is commonly called Alkali Sacaton in the local language. This grass is a halophyte, an organism that tolerates and in fact flourishes in areas of high salt concentrations, and I found that most of the grasses I encountered were of this species.

In some of the more established specimens, mounds of sand had accumulated at the bases, and this reminded me of how beach dune grasses also trapped grains of sand on their bases, and thus helped in the stabilization of the beach dunes.

Sporobolus airoides during sunset
I spent some time taking in situ macro photographs of the inflorescence, which had tiny spikelets with unequal glumes and one floret nestling in each of them.

Sporobolus airoides - Alkali Sacaton

Sporobolus airoides - Alkali Sacaton

Sporobolus airoides - Alkali Sacaton

In addition to the widespread S. airoides, I also stumbled on other grasses. One was Oryzopsis hymenoides, or Indian Rice Grass, which looks superficially like S. airoides, and whose seeds are a major food source for various desert animals.

Oryzopsis hymenoides - Indian Rice Grass

The Native Americans also used the seeds to make bread when their maize crops did not do well.

Oryzopsis hymenoides - Indian Rice Grass
Spikelets of Indian Rice Grass
The other grass I found while on a hike was Schizachyrium scoparium, commonly known as Little Bluestem. This species is commonly a denizen of the prairies, and in fact was one of the major components of the tallgrass prairies of yore. Its presence in the dunes was at first a mystery, but I found out it was explained by the fact the water table in the lower parts of the dunefield is quite high, which provides enough water for this species even in the absence of enough precipitation.

Schizachyrium scoparium - Little Bluestem

All in all, the trip to the White Sands National Monument was fantastic, and I would wholeheartedly recommend this for anyone interested in how organisms can survive in extreme environments.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Redfieldia flexuosa (Blowoutgrass) in Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

The huge dunefields of Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, which feature sand dunes up to 200 meters tall, is a tough place for any plant to survive. It is dry, the dessicating winds are harsh, and the threat of being buried by the ever shifting sands is a daily battle for those few organisms that make this area their home.

I visited this National Park in September 2019, and the first plants I noticed as I entered the dunefield was Psoralidium lanceolatum (lemon scurfpea), which formed large colonies along  the sandy perimeter of the actual dunes.

Redfieldia  flexuosa - blowout grass
A colony of blowout grass
This legume gave way to Redfieldia flexuosa (blowoutgrass), which was the most common species I encountered as I slogged my way deeper into the sandy depths of the dunefield. As indicated by their common name, blowout grass tends to be found in the sandy depressions between dunes called "blowouts." However, I also found them high up the sides of tall dunes, clinging improbably to the sand in almost vertical colonies.

Redfieldia  flexuosa - blowout grass
A colony of blowout grass clinging to the side of a dune
I did not encounter individual specimens of this species in the dunes, but small to large colonies, a possible consequence of the fact the grass has fast growing rhizomes that allow it to quickly spread.

The rhizomes grow at varying depths, which might be an adaptation to the constantly fluctuating height of the sand dunes. Entire plants can be regrown from the rhizomes, even if they are buried deep in the sand.

Redfieldia  flexuosa - blowout grass
Habit of blowout grass
Blowout grass is readily identified by the presence of very fine panicles, which can be up to half the height of the plant. I took in situ macro shots of the spikelets, which are awn-less and have equal length glumes and two to six florets. The strong winds and fine sand particles that continually threatened to grit up my camera made the going rough, but I was happy with the results.

Redfieldia  flexuosa - blowout grass

Redfieldia  flexuosa - blowout grass

Redfieldia  flexuosa - blowout grass

Redfieldia  flexuosa - blowout grass

In the end, I really enjoyed finding and taking photographs of the blowout grass. It reminded me of the tenacity and adaptability of life, even in the harsh dry environment of  the sand dunes. If I had more time, it would have been interesting to map out the locations of all the R. flexuosa colonies in the various dunes.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Poa Hunting at Tent Rocks and Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

Bouteloua gracilis at Bandelier
There were quite a few interesting grass species at the nearby Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument and Bandelier National Monument.

Bromus tectorum at Bandelier
In addition to the native species, there were a number of colonies of the invasive cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), which sometimes coated hillsides with their dry golden-colored forms.

Bromus tectorum at Tent Rocks
Cheatgrass has become a scourge in the Northwestern states, destroying sagebrush ecosystems due to its propensity to cause more frequent and hotter burning fires.

Bromus tectorum at Tent Rocks
Another ubiquitous species was Blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), whose comb-like inflorescence were quite distinctive and rather cute as they waved in the slight breeze.

Bromus tectorum at Bandelier
Blue grama is the state grass of New Mexico, and it is also the most valuable forage grass in the state. Native Americans are fond of Blue grama as well, and make bread from the seeds, which they grind up to make the flour.

Schizachyrium scoparium at Bandelier
In Bandelier, I also chanced upon single specimens of Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), their straight rigid forms quite distinctive among the other vegetation.

Bouteloua gracilis at Bandelier
All in all, I enjoyed Poa Hunting at the two national monuments, and I was especially interested in my introduction to Blue grama grass.