|Male flowerhead of Bouteloua dactyloides (Colorado)
In 1977, a movie called Star Wars was just starting out on its path to becoming one of the most successful science fiction franchises in history. Marty McFly had yet to drive his DeLorean back to the future; Arnold Schwarzenegger was a relatively unknown bodybuilder whose metamorphosis into the Terminator was years into the future, and even E.T. had no need to phone home just yet.
|Male flowerheads of Bouteloua dactyloides (Colorado)
In this same year, in a university town in New Jersey, plant clippings from a garbage bin that was being emptied by trash collectors accidentally fell onto a lawn of Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis). The clippings had come from a nearby Rutgers University greenhouse that was housed in the Nelson Biological Sciences building. A grass species from the high plains of Oklahoma and Kansas was being grown there for turf studies, and its introduction into the heavily trampled and disturbed grounds of the Rutgers Busch Campus was in hindsight a fortuitous event (Quinn, 1998).
|Front lawn of Library of Science and Medicine at Rutgers Busch Campus. Red arrows point to B. dactyloides clusters
Forty six years later, I knelt on the same grounds in front of the next door Rutgers Library of Science and Medicine (LSM) building and examined tiny male flowerheads of Bouteloua dactyloides (commonly called buffalo grass in the USA). They marked the occurrence of the same plant(s) that had escaped almost five decades earlier, and their expansion and spread using both stolons and seeds moved me. I felt a sense of being connected through time by this humble native grass to that past accident so long ago.
It was relatively easy to determine the extent of the spread at this time of the year. The species starts to brown earlier during autumn, and it stood out against the still darker green masses of other turf grasses. I could see clearly that it was now present on different lawn areas that were separated by concrete paths, and that some of the irregularly shaped clones were quite large.
|Mobile phone pic of male flowerheads of Bouteloua dactyloides in lawn of Library of Science and Medicine, Rutgers University Busch Campus.
I noted the GPS coordinates and measured the sizes of the clusters that I could ID as B. dactyloides. Many were vaguely round, oval, or rectangular in shape, with diameters of half a meter for the smaller ones, and sizes that approached bedroom size for some of the larger ones.
|Room size cluster of Bouteloua dactyloides (light brown area) next to Rutgers Library of Science and Medicine
The survival of the original plant for almost half a century is notable, because B. dactyloides has been touted as a low-maintenance, drought tolerant, and native alternative to the usual European grasses that dominate the northeast lawns in the USA today. I myself considered its use on my own lawn in NJ at one time some years ago.
Unfortunately, its intolerance to shade and its inability to be competitive in rainy wet areas has always raised questions as to whether it would be a successful replacement to the proven imported turf grasses. In this case, not only had it survived for almost half a century, but it had managed to spread significantly against formidable opposition from forbs and other types of grasses such as P. pratensis. This helps prove that it is possible to use this species as turf grass and for erosion control in disturbed soil in the Northeast.
|Female reproductive structure of Bouteloua dactyloides (Colorado)
As an important aside, I know some people follow trees over time, but there are many herbaceous plants that can exist for very long periods, and it is just as rewarding to follow their lives over time. In fact, the longest lived organism in the world is a herbaceous seagrass, which has been calculated to be 80,000 to 200,000 years old (Arnaud-Haond et al, 2012)! It is amazing to think how the world has seen so much change during that astounding duration.
In the same way, although spanning an exponentially shorter span, when I first laid my eyes on the spreading clusters of B. dactyloides in front of the LSM library a couple days back, I truly felt an emotional attachment to them. I studied at this same university in the 1990s, and I had likely passed by the same individual many times on the way to my studies. It made me feel the ticking of time with a more visceral emotion than mere objective contemplation, and it humbles me that this clonal individual might still be flourishing and thriving and growing when I'm long gone from the world.
Arnaud-Haond S, Duarte CM, Diaz-Almela E, Marbà N, Sintes T, Serrão EA. Implications of extreme life span in clonal organisms: millenary clones in meadows of the threatened seagrass Posidonia oceanica. PLoS One. 2012;7(2):e30454. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0030454. Epub 2012 Feb 1. PMID: 22312426; PMCID: PMC3270012.
Quinn, J. A. (1998). Natural Expansion of Buchloe dactyloides at a Disturbed Site in New Jersey and Its Implications for Turf and Conservation Uses. The Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society, 125(4), 319–323. https://doi.org/10.2307/2997245