Every grass has its flower.

Grasses are tenacious harnessers of the prairie.

This humble family survives the open plains and thrives in niches that others are too flamboyant to endure. Their incredibly deep roots protect them from drought, and their tall silica-rich stalks scatter the next generation. 

Though often thought of as a backdrop for peaking wildflowers, grasses are actually flowering plants themselves. They evolved to stand and spread under vast, harsh skies. While their fraternal twin the orchid family grew alluring petals and fragrances, the grasses grew into tall and limber pollen casters. Well after the first flowering plants and more recently than the dinosaurs, grasses diverged from other buds as minimalists. 

They found resilience in simplicity. 

Smooth brome, Bromus inermis

Without a need to attract insects to jumble their genes, grasses didn’t have to spend masses of energy on lavish pageantry. They dug their roots in deeper, grew a few more stickers, and when grazers or burns mowed them down, they came back sprawling. 

Minimal beauty

Their flowers stayed small and muted. They lost their petals and rearranged their bracing bracts into something more hardy. When pastures bloom, their shy brilliance pokes out of camouflaged grains. They exist as rows of envelopes, smaller florets, braiding themselves into a diversity of branching inflorescence

Illustration credit: Barnard, 2014.

Grass flowers adorn themselves with what looks like a string of pollen-covered lanterns. From within, a curious set of small internal leaves will swell, pushing feathery stigmas and powdery anthers out of the floret. 

Grasses are anemophilous, “wind loving.” Although their blooms are only half as vivid as their stalks, many make small colorful gifts to the breeze. The female pistil can come in silver, yellow or deep periwinkle, whereas the male anthers can flaunt yellow, orange, green, crimson and even lavender-purple. 

You can see them displaying their small wares right now along the grounds of the Arboretum: blue grama, big bluestem and brome all in their summer suede. 

Beginners to winners

Another reductionist adaptation is their use of spiny awls. You probably know them better as stickers. These extra bristles get caught in fur and socks to be pulled across the prairie. Some awls are bent, some are straight and some will even twist and untwist with fluctuations in humidity, screwing themselves into the earth. 

They may have replaced fragrance for practicality, but ultimately it’s had major payoffs. Swaths of pasture persist through drought, fire and storm. Twenty percent of all wild plants in the Great Plains are grasses. Not only do their populations outnumber any other group of flowering plant, their distribution is sweeping. By weight they account for 70 percent of all crops. 

Truly subdued prominence. 

Resources: Barnard, Iralee. Field Guide to the Common Grasses of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. University Press of Kansas, 2014

Roadside Beauty: What are you seeing?

Fall is the season of change. The verdant green of the prairie melts to lifeless, barren forms – a stark contrast to the landscape that once looked so alive. But for now, as change happens, we are blessed to partake in hues and colors of striking beauty. Trees explode with vibrant shades of orange, red and yellow. Native grasses develop vivid colors and attractive blooms. Asters, goldenrods and sunflowers speckle the horizon.  It is the crescendo of the whole year.

Maybe you have noticed these dramatic changes happening, too. Plants that once blended into their surroundings are suddenly visible. It’s as if someone turned a light on them. Even the prairies and roadsides display beautiful shades of gold, purple, apricot, olive, and copper with autumn wildflowers, shrubs, and curling, rustling grasses. Here are a few that I have seen lately along the roadsides of south-central Kansas.

Sumac

There is no other shrub that signals fall more than sumac. The blood red leaves and clusters of seeds are striking. They are like beacons along the roadsides. If only we could advertise with these shrubs, because they catch my eye every time.

Dogbane

This close relative of milkweed has so much going for it. Dogbane is host for many insects. In fact, the US Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS) ranks Dogbane’s value to pollinators as ‘very high’. Dogbane typically grows two to three feet tall and develops into larger colonies. Right now, they are a bright yellow, which makes them stand out even more. Even the common milkweeds have turned a nice golden color.

Big bluestem

The “King of Grasses” is big and bold. The reddish purple stems begin to change and set the landscape ablaze with their intense colors. Look for the distinctive “Turkey Foot” seed head, too.

“I took a long walk north of the town, out into the pastures where the land was so rough that it had never been ploughed up, and the long red grass of early times still grew shaggy over the draws and hillocks. Out there I felt at home again.” -Willa Cather, My Antonia

Switchgrass

There are a number of outstanding native grasses that provide late season interest, but Switchgrass Panicum virgatum is one of the more common grasses in roadside ditches. It grows to a height of 3-6 feet and turns orange, yellow and fiery red-tipped shades in the fall. The persistent airy blooms and attractive fall colors make this an attractive grass in the landscape.

Osage orange

This tree is along many roadsides in south central Kansas. It is still incredible to see those huge hedge apples dangling from the branches and scattered on the road. The tough demeanor of this tree including its thorns made it ideal as a living fence. Many were planted during the Dust Bowl days as part of WPA projects to prevent soil erosion in the Great Plains states.

Heath aster

Asters are the grand finale to the prairie garden. Heath asters are one of the last asters to bloom. The diminutive white flowers cover the entire plant, making them look like snow mounds in the prairie. They are one of the last great feeding opportunities for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators before they migrate or go dormant for the winter.

Although each season is different, autumn is a very special time. Life has come full circle, from spring through summer and ultimately ending in the fall. It is the perfect time to enjoy all that is changing around us. It is a time to take in sights, sounds and smells of the prairie and connect anew with the natural world.

Bonus Plant: Pink smartweed

Pink smartweed is prolific, growing wild in nearly every roadside ditch. The bright pink flowers and red stems are very striking. They thrive in damp or wet sites, but it is an annual. If you want some for your landscape, collect the seed after the pink flowers fade.






Three Iconic Prairie Grasses to Add to Your Landscape

Native grasses are at their best right now.  They are in full plumage.  They are changing color from green to bold reds, yellows, and oranges.  They have reached their full height.  They are spectacular.

I can’t imagine the view atop a rise looking over the expanse of the Great Plains in its unbroken state – a “sea of grass” as far as you could see.  It must have been awe inspiring. Within these waves of gold and green, three grasses stood out from the rest.

Within these waves of gold and green, three grasses stood out from the rest.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

This is the king of the prairie grasses, reaching to the skies and sending its roots deep.  It perseveres in tallgrass prairies.  The vertical stems stand firmly and sway with only a slight breeze and change vibrantly in the fall to shades of red and orange.  The three-pronged seed heads resemble a turkey’s foot, hence its other name “Turkey Foot Grass”.  Plant it in full sun in a medium to moist soil.

 

Big Bluestem3

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

The airy seed heads and upright habit make this a great landscape grass.  These forms make quite a statement in the fall and winter landscape.  They add structure, texture and movement.  For best results, plant them in a sunny spot in a medium to moist soil.  It is very drought tolerant.  Discover these varieties: ‘Northwind’-consistent upright form to four feet tall and golden yellow fall color, ‘Cheyenne Sky’-red leaves develop early in the summer and grows to three feet, and ‘Dallas Blues’-tall (to 8 feet), with blue foliage and purple seed heads.

Panicum Northwind.resize

Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)

The yellow/tan plumes and vase-shaped habit make this grass easy to recognize in prairies.  I use them in naturalistic plantings or formal plantings.  Give them space, because mature plants can be five feet across the top.   It grows best in a medium to dry soil and all-day sun.  Heavy clay soils make it robust, but it thrives in many different soil types.

Indian Grass

 

These native grasses are the backbone of the tallgrass prairie.  They are resilient because their roots go deep making them drought tolerant and tough.  They are garden-worthy and deserve a place in the landscape.  Give them a try.  You will be rewarded for many years to come.

Check out this article in Fine Gardening that I wrote several years ago for more information on other native grasses.






Teenage Prairie

Our prairie is getting all grown up. The 12-acre prairie reconstruction at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains known as the Prairie Window Project is reaching a noticeably new stage of maturity in its sixth year of growth. Deep root systems have developed to support a matrix of full-size grasses, a variety of colorful wildflowers, and a bounty of seed heads. For the first time, it looks like and gives the feel of being a REAL prairie.

Big bluestem growing in the Prairie Window Project

Big bluestem growing in the Prairie Window Project

I can’t help but reflect on its numerous developmental similarities to those of my 14-year old son, Henry. Each involved preparation and planning, was nurtured with grand hopes and dreams, and required a significant investment of time and economic resources to shepherd them to their current state of maturation. Just as many lessons of my childhood and a rich array of ancestral influences have contributed to Henry’s development, the arboretum’s tallgrass youngster was conceived only after years of studying and modeling the local prairies of South Central Kansas and collecting seeds from over 170 plant species.

I even poignantly recognize that many of our Marion County prairie remnant seed sources near Lehigh laden with bluestem, blazing star, blue salvia, and goldenrod were the same prairies where my Grandpa Henry decades ago introduced me to prairie wonders such as rolling vistas of the Flint Hills, scissor-tailed flycatchers, and ruts of the Santa Fe Trail. It gives me great comfort to know that the remains of dozens of my ancestors in Marion County cemeteries, and maybe even mine someday, will be cycled through the 10-foot deep root systems of big bluestem, switchgrass and Indian grass many times over in the coming millennia.

Blazing star and Indian grass in the Prairie Window Project

Button blazing star and Indian grass in the Prairie Window Project

Henry and the Prairie Window Project have each benefited greatly from the work and support of many others along with some fortunate helpings of luck. They are beneficiaries of the nutrient-rich soils of Kansas, and both have surpassed me in height this fall. They have plenty of room to grow in complexity, mature and diversify, and I am coming to terms with the fact that most of my influence to shape these two beings has already been given. I marvel at what they have become in their young lives, and with great anticipation I will be watching what new developments are to come.

For more information on prairie restoration and native plants, please explore our website.