Saturday, September 26, 2020

Flowering at the Crabbing Bridge: Sporobolus alterniflorus at Cheesequake State Park

I've already done several posts on Cheesequake State Park, and how it is notable because it lies in the transition zone between two different ecosystems, and harbors organisms that are native to both south and north New Jersey. It is also interesting to me because it encompasses a salt marsh, and is the home to several grass species, each of which is specific to a particular portion of the salt marsh.

Phragmites australis looking out over Hooks Creek Lake

The place is also a great hiking location, with well-marked trails that are wide and clean. Although there is no high viewpoint in the trails that we've done,  there are various stops at the edges of lakes and ponds. The facility also has a sandy beach that fronts Hooks Creek Lake, and various lookouts that survey nearby marshlands.

(PA) Phragmites australis, (SA) Sporobolus alterniflorus, (SP) Sporobolus pumilus near the Crabbing Bridge

We went there again today to hike, and I spent some time in the Perrine Road Trail, in the general vicinity of the Crabbing Bridge. This where one can see all 3 major grass species in the area (see image above). The invasive Phragmites australis (PA) occupies areas close to the  eastern end of the extended "walkway", with Sporobolus pumilus (SP) next to it, while the low marsh species Sporobolus alterniflorus (SA) is situated close to the water itself.

S. pumilus in front of P.australis stand

It's fairly easy to distinguish the three, with P. australis being much taller than the other two, the darkish flowerhead rising high up in the air and usually drooping to one side. S. pumilus beside it is much shorter, the long thin leaves close to the ground to form graceful clumps.

View of S. alterniflorus from walkway to Crabbing Bridge 

S. alterniflorus is intermediate in size, and occupies most of the area all the way to the actual Crabbing Bridge. When we were walking over the walkway, I noticed that many of the culms had flowerheads in bloom.

The inflorescence was a spike, quite pointed at the end, and mostly green in color. 

White anthers decorated the spikes and dangled out from the flattened spikelets. The anthers seemed quite long, almost sausage-like in shape. The term grub-like might even be used to describe it.

I spent some time taking pics of various blooms, which was not an easy task given that the walkway was perhaps only 2-3 meters in width, and due to Covid-19 restrictions I was trying to remain a bit far away from other passing visitors.

When people passed I tried to keep as close to the edge as possible, and the thought that I might overbalance and fall into the grasses was a constant thought in my mind. I can only imagine the commotion that would ensue if that happened.

Oh, the things we have to do for our passions ;-)

Friday, September 25, 2020

Spikelets of Muhlenbergia reverchonii "Undaunted"

I bought a Muhlenbergia (along with a Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light') cultivar at the end of 2019.

Both were dried and seemingly dead, and therefore discounted by the store, but I figured that they would sprout again in Spring. So I kept both in our garage, making sure not to wet the soil, and as expected this Spring both grasses came to life.

Unfortunately, neither seemed especially vigorous at the beginning, although as Fall came both have continued to grow larger. The Miscanthus hasn't flowered, but the Muhlenbergia did send out a somewhat thin spray of pink blooms.

The spikelets were quite tiny, but I did manage to take macro shots of some, which clearly showed the short glumes and awned lemma of the single florets in each spikelet.

I had planted the Muhlenbergia close to a stand of Japanese Blood Grass (Imperata cylindrica), and over the course of the year the JBG had started to envelope it, and perhaps this had also affected its size. I'm therefore going to transplant the grass away from the JBG next year and hope the specimen performs better.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Who says I'm not ornamental? Native Schizachyrium scoparium (Little Bluestem)

A lot of times our native grasses get the short shrift even from gardeners, who tend to want the pricey ornamental grass cultivars sold by stores.

But I found this Schizachyrium scoparium on a roadside filled with Little Bluestem, and look at it now. The late afternoon sun was shining on it, and I noticed it looked quite red from a side angle, so I took a quick pic using a cellphone (the one with the Leica lens though).

What a beautiful gem, and 100% native and wild type!

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

A Lovecraftian Field of Cogon

Image: Courtesy of Ashley Snodgress 

In the tropics there are whole mountain ranges covered in cogon, the waving blades of grass standing triumphant in a land denuded of other competing plant life. They call these mega-grasslands sheet Imperata, and these are only the most visible signs of a species that dominate up to 4% of the total land mass of tropical Asia. In some places like Sri Lanka, cogongrass covers an astounding 23% of the country! Even more amazing, this species has been estimated to infest up to 500 million hectares worldwide,  which is nearly the size of the total land area of the continental USA.

In the USA itself, Imperata cylindrica is limited to the subtropical southeastern parts of the country, where it lays waste to about half a million hectares. Although the vast cogon grasslands that is so prevalent in tropical Asia are mostly absent in America, I am sometimes astounded by how rapidly the species can spread to cover a large area even in relatively developed land. 

In the image above, which was taken in Florida, the landscape seems almost alien and surreal. The entire area is covered in cogongrass, with only a few trees and other taller shrubs scattered about like discarded flotsam in a vast green sea. It almost makes one wonder what lovecraftian monsters might lurk and slither within its dark depths.

Little Bluestem's Mountain Loving (Schizachyrium scoparium)

Schizachyrium scoparium

Note: My 55 mm lens is screwy, so you'll pardon me because the pics here were all taken with a cellphone camera, though it does have a Leica lens.

I have an inordinate fondness for Schizachyrium scoparium (Little Bluestem). I think it's a combination of its smaller size, its very distinctive habit, and its really cool reddish coloring when Fall comes along. Plus, the species is a member of the "Four Horsemen" of the Tall Grass Prairies, and you can't get any more native than that.

I also hike a lot, and when I get near the top of moderately tall mountain summits, I sometimes spot colonies of this species rising from the stony outcrops like crimson sentinels. It always gives me a thrill to see them, no matter how many times this happens. It's like seeing an old friend again, one who has endeared itself to your heart.

Schizachyrium scoparium

I encountered Little Bluestem again when I drove (then hiked) up Prospect Mountain, near Lake George in New York State. Colonies of this species were scattered on the summit of the mountain, as well as along the roadway that led up to the summit.

S. scoparium seems to thrive when there is lots of sunlight and bare rocky ground, and both are plentiful up where the air is fresh and the wind is sometimes cold. In this case, about 620 meters above sea level, well below the tree line, but sunny enough to make it very happy.

Up here the grass rose from the surrounding stone, their straight reddish forms quite arresting. One particularly large (and flowery) individual stood next to a boulder, the sinuous curves of part of Lake George glittering behind it.

Schizachyrium scoparium

I still remember seeing this species in June 2019 while hiking the Summit Trail in Jenny Jump Forest in NJ. I did not know the name of the grass then (how things have changed in such a short time!), but I still marveled at the sight of the reddish hued straight grass at the summit of Jenny Jump.

So the next time you hike up one of the mountains in the eastern part of the USA, keep a look out for one of these native beauties!

Sunday, September 13, 2020

A mossy life in the clouds

The Cascade Mountain Trail near Lake Placid in New York State is a moderate hike that takes you above the treeline to bald rocky outcrops 1250 meters above sea level. At this height, alpine vegetation can be seen among the plant life, their low slung bodies hugging the ground in order to shelter from any strong winds.

I was eating lunch next to large boulders, when I noticed some vegetation hidden in the shadow of the rocks. When I looked more closely, I was delighted to find some grasses growing from a luxuriant carpet of moss.

The grasses had very fine leaves, and dried seedheads rose from the clumps like tiny white flags. A quick investigation showed the panicles contained the remnants of extremely tiny spikelets.

I took macro shots of the spikelets, which were probably only 1-2 mm in size, and based on that and the leaves tentatively identified the species as Deschampsia flexuosa.

The association of this species with mosses immediately brought to mind the habits of its sister, the noteworthy Deschampsia antartica, which is only one of two vascular plants that have managed to colonize deep into Antartica.   That species is also frequently seen growing from mosses, and researchers have found that specimens in such an association are larger and healthier than those individuals living on bare rocks (Casanova-Katny and Cavieres, 2012).

They surmised that mosses help the grass by modifying the surrounding environment, perhaps by increasing soil moisture and soil nutrients content, or by also buffering temperature compared to bare areas.

Whatever the reason for their association, my surprise find at the summit of Cascade Mountain certainly added to the enjoyment of the hike!

Literature Cited

Casanova-Katny M. A., Cavieres L. A. (2012). Antarctic moss carpets facilitate growth of Deschampsia antarctica but not its survival. Pol. Biol. 35 1869–1878

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Bewitched by Witchgrass (Panicum capillare)

 I was walking along Rush Pond Trail near Lake George, in New York, when I spotted a few unusual grasses that stood along the perimeter of a vacant lot.

I had never seen their like before. The grasses had airy panicles above, purplish in color, but they also were rather hairy and had tough looking, almost corn-like leaves.

Not only were the stems hairy, but their leaves also had long hairs sprouting from its side, as well as on its surfaces.

I took macroshots of the spikelets, and later tentatively identified the unknown grass as  Panicum capillare, an annual bunchgrass which is native to North America.

The interesting thing about this species is that its large panicle, when dried, can later break off whole and travel around as tumbleweeds!

I have to admit, I would like to see such a phenomenon. I never actually thought grasses could create such diasporic structures.


Tuesday, September 8, 2020

A simple contrast: Diversity vs Monoculture


M. vimineum in Watching Reservation, NJ in Spring (top) and
diverse flora in French Mountain, Lake George NY in Fall (bottom)

I'm currently hiking the Lake George area of the Adirondacks, in New York State.

The Adirodacks has been fighting a long war against Phragmites australis, but it has so far escaped the ravages of the equally  aggressive Microstegium vimineum (Stiltgrass).

I hiked both the French Mountain Trail and the Buck Mountain Trail, and so far I have not seen any signs of stiltgrass.

Instead, I have seen lots of diverse flora inhabiting the forest understory, from moses, to ferns, to non-invasive grasses like Leersia virginica.

I took a pic of the diverse flora surrounding a dead tree trunk, and suddenly realized I had taken a somewhat similar photo in Watchung Reservation in NJ, but this time of a dead tree trunk in Spring surrounded by sprouting M. vimineum

By the time Fall came around, the short culms of the stiltgrass would perhaps be so dense and tall that they would look like the colony of stiltgrass in the pic below!

Microstegium vimineum surrounding tree in Fall

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Weed of the Month: Eleusine indica (Indian Goosegrass)

Eleusine indica is an annual C3 grass that is an important weed of cultivated crops, lawns, and golf courses. It thrives in disturbed areas with compacted soils in full sun. Some of its common names include Indian goosegrass, yard-grass, goosegrass, wiregrass, or crowfootgrass. 

Whitish base and low growing habit

I first saw it growing on the ground of our vegetable garden, and I at first thought that it was just another crabgrass (Digitaria spp). However, closer inspection showed that it had an unusual flowerhead, with two rows of spikelets in straight rows on opposite sides of the rachis. The spikelets looked like inverted jet wings from the top!

The other interesting feature of the grass was that the area around its base was quite white in color, which gave it a two tone appearance from straight up. Close up macro shots of the inflorescence and spikelets also seem to show the tiny stigmas and anthers are purple in color.

Invasive and Hegemonic Grasses Website

I started a website dedicated to invasive and hegemonic grass species. 

I have always been interested in such grasses, and in fact my interest in the family as a whole was first bolstered by reading about cogon grass (Imperata cylindrica).

I like the blog format, but I am pretty old style and I also like the feeling of more permanence that a static website brings.

Hopefully, the site will be of use to some people.

The Lurker's Guide to Invasive and Hegemonic Grasses

Friday, September 4, 2020

I planted Kentucky Bluegrass and Crabgrass came out!

Purplish stigma and whitish anthers on the crabgrass spikelets

In springtime, I spread some seeds of what was supposed to be mainly Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis) on a denuded square of lawn that I had hastily (and stupidly) killed last year. I had been dissatisfied with the weedy looking grass in that area, and figured I'd grow some nice bluegrass on it instead.

Instead of the fine darkish blue leaves of bluegrass however, what sprouted mostly from the spot was a light green grass with broad coarse leaves. I tried to convince myself that the thing was merely one of the grasses in the mix, and I dutifully kept mowing it low over the whole season.

That delusion was crushed just this afternoon when I suddenly noticed extremely low lying inflorescence on the grass, and when I knelt down to peer at the tiny flowerheads I had to groan.

It was of course a Digitaria species, a weed.  I did not have the heart (or desire) to try to figure out whether it was D. ischaemum (smooth crabgrass), D. sanguinalis (hairy crabgrass), or some other species in the genus.

In the end, I salvaged the situation by taking some macro shots of the flowerheads of the weed, but that was really small consolation.

Destructive Duo? Cogon and Talahib at Laguna de Bay in the Philippines

For more posts on cogon grass, click here.

For another post on talahib, click here.

The view from the shoreline of Laguna de Bay in Los Banos, Philippines was fantastic, with the island of Talim rising out of the shallow waters in the distance. But 8 years ago I had just started the first tentative steps in my journey among the grasses, and so when I was taking pictures of the beautiful scenery, I failed to notice two of the dominant plants in that area. 

In the foreground of many of my pictures masses of Cogon grass covered the land, and rising sporadically from the sea of Imperata cylindrica were much taller grasses, their seedheads jutting up like feathery telescopes.

Although sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) is present in agricultural land in the place, this is probably Saccharum spontaneum, or wild sugarcane, which is called talahib locally.

Spent Talahib flowerheads

I noticed that people tended to mix the two when trying to identify masses of grass, but it's actually fairly easy to separate them.

I. cylindrica is shorter, with blades that seem to come straight up from the ground and fluffy seedheads. The off-center white midrib is also diagnostic, as if the sharp leaf edges when you run your fingers down a leaf. Here is a page that will help identify this species.

Flowering I. cylindrica

These two grasses are the dominant species in grasslands in the country, and Imperata grasslands in particular cover up to 17% of the land area of the Philippines! Like cogongrass, talahib is a staple of the Philippine landscape, and some people even wax lyrical about it. Also like cogongrass, it is heavily used for making various items, such as hats, brooms, baskets, walls and even furniture. In terms of its medical uses, it has been used as an astringent, emollient, refrigerant, diuretic and aphrodisiac.  

Interestingly, the extent of these grasslands has long been blamed on the destruction of forests during the clearing of land for agricultural use, but perhaps there is another story hidden behind what might be a mentality held over from colonial times. However, no matter the truth, such grasslands are very hard to convert to human-usable land due to the difficulty in eliminating the underground rhizomes of cogongrass.

Finally, on a very positive note, both grasses are strong carbon sequesters, with S. spontaneum storing 13.1 t C/ha (87% in above ground shoots), and I. cylindrica accumulating 8.5 t C/ha (only 60% of which is in above ground culms). Another study showed that such Imperata grasslands are net carbon sinks, storing a net of 38.45 g C m–2 year–1 (0.40 Mg C ha–1 year–1). In these days of climate change, you take what you can get.

Closeup of I. cylindrica flowerhead


Lales, J.  S., Lasco,  R. D., Geronimo,  I. Q., 2001.  Carbon storage capacity  of agricultural and  grasslands ecosystems in  a geothermal block. The Philippine Agricultural Scientist, 84(1): 8-18.

Karabi Pathak, Arun Jyoti Nath and Ashesh Kumar Das. Imperata grasslands: carbon source or sink? Vol. 108, No. 12 (25 June 2015), pp. 2250-2253