Indian Grass and Big Bluestem Join the Crowd

By now, five years into the relationship, I no longer feel it necessary to call my land Ms. Forty-four Acres.   Sometimes I feel it’s perfectly appropriate to call her Forty-four, or even Dear old Double F – but that doesn’t mean I actually know her really well yet.

Whenever I step off the path, I’m prepared to be surprised.

Sometimes I don’t even have to step off the path. And sometimes those surprises are not good ones.  Looking more closely at some pretty little white flowers last spring gave me the shock of realizing the dreaded Garlic Mustard had secured a toe hold in the very center of my 44 acres.    See my post Pass the Garlic Mustard .

Indian Grass in its radiant glory

Indian Grass in its radiant glory

In a recent post I was waxing poetic about the beauty of native grasses I’d seen on a prairie walk at UW Arboretum.  I prepared a wish list I want to introduce into my own restored prairie and glade.  At the top of the list was Indian Grass, one of the most gorgeous specimens of grass out there.  People actually pay money to add it to their landscaping —  And why not?  Its feathery plumes and large, soft, golden-brown seed heads  bobbing above the shorter grasses takes my breath away, and it evidently continues to look good all winter.  It’s also tasty to grazing animals when young  and can provide nest sites, protective cover and food for birds

It’s a bit of a two-edged sword.  According to its USDA Plant Profile, Indiangrass is listed both as an endangered species then condemned as a weedy invasive — but not, I think as invasive as it’s brother, Big Bluestem.

Big Bluestem can really take over!

Big Bluestem can really take over!

Big Bluestem is another  dramatic native grass.  Both of them can top out above 8 feet and both have great original prairie credentials, but I’ve always been wary of introducing Big Bluestem to Ms. Fourty-four Acres.  The first prairie I ever toured had been planted with a mix that included Big Bluestem, but by the time I saw it a few years after planting, it was an 10-foot tall wall of impenetrable Big Bluestem.  You couldn’t see over it.  You couldn’t see through it.  It can grow in dense stands that crowd out all other plants.

Maybe it should be called Big Bullystem.  My own flower-filled prairie was much too lovely to be turned into a Big Bluestem preserve. That day I made what I thought was a permanent note to self :   nix on the Bluestem.

Well, cancel that note.

Last Friday while looking out into the glade, (a small opening we have recovered from pine woods, which has turned out to be a treasure box of re-emerging prairie plants), I raised my head from the sea of prairie flowers to see  that there were a few seed heads gently wafting on tall stems above the cone flowers and stiff goldenrod and asters.  I could distinctly recognize two of the grasses I had seen on a UW-Arboretum tour the week before.  There was Indian Grass AND Big Bluestem out there.  Just a smattering, but there they were waving in the evening breeze.

Last week all grasses looked alike to me.   So I’m not sure if they were waving at me last year.  It’s possible I just didn’t know enough to recognize them before, or perhaps they have finally reappeared now that the glade has been in full sun for several years.

Big-bluestem-closeup

Gazing at what I now realize is Big Bluestem’s distinctive three-pronged, turkey footprint against the sky, I felt my heart open.  If that grandaddy of the original prairie is coming back in this protected spot, I have to admit that it was here before I was.

I‘m willing to take my chances with the Bluestem.   I feel a little like the poor sap drawn to a cute little puppy that is destined to grow into a gigantic,  slobbering hound who will soon be eating my furniture — but to both of these skyscrapers of the prairie plant community, I say, “LET HER RIP!”

Historically, it’s not a good idea to take out plants like Indian Grass and Big Bluestem where they are growing naturally.  Their deep roots were what kept the prairie soil from blowing away in the constant wind.  Settlers learned the hard way that a dust bowl is what happens when you plow under native grasses.

If Dear Old Double F is going to give me a chance to steward these prairie power houses, then I’m going to take it!

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1 reply

  1. Congrats on finding the big blue and Indian grass in your glade! They are such key components of tall grass that I can’t imagine thinking about them as invasive. I think you only get the monoculture you described if they’ve been too heavily seeded in CRP ground (without enough forb seed in the mix) and/or if the land has been treated with chemicals to reduce the “weeds” (aka wildflowers or forbs).

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