Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 16, 2007

Little Awn on the Prairie

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:07 pm

 This being the second or third time that I’ve addressed the topic of native grasses, I beg your indulgence.  You might be one of those who happen to believe that people who bring up the subject of “native grass” more than once in a decade are desperately in need of a life.  I will admit that yelling out something like “Hey everybody, let’s talk about grass,” will either put an immediate end to a party or create a flurry of unintended interest.  No, I am not talking about “grass” dude, I’m talking about grasses – those skinny leaved plants that bind our world together.

  Before I continue, let me remind you that without grass, human life on the planet would be very different indeed.  Those early hominoids in Africa probably would never have thought about standing upright if it weren’t for the need to forage over expansive grasslands.  Corn, wheat, and rice are not only the three biggest food plants of all time but they are grasses.  You and I are slaves to grass – we grow it, mow it, and watch games played on it, and mow it again.  Our food animals are slaves to it – they eat it and we eat them (O.K., not everyone eats “them” but vegetarians eat “it” before “it” becomes “them.”) At the very least, we should be talking about grass much more than we do.

  In the interest of setting all things into perspective and restoring world harmony, I would like to call your attention to some unappreciated native grasses called Indian Grass & Little Bluestem. They are not food plants but do provide a feast for the eyes. They whisper with each passing breeze something about a glorious past. The beautiful fall hues and stories presented by these two plants are easily overlooked. 

  There is a particular stretch of Telegraph Road that runs from Monroe south to the Ohio state line that harbors a nice linear patch of these grasses. Most of the stretch exists as an unmown right of way for the rail line that parallels the road (see here). The tall light tan stems are those of the Yellow Indian Grass and the clusters of rich golden oak hued grass are called Little Bluestem.

  Up close, the stately Indian Grass presents a seed head (a panicle) made up of dozens of hairy little glume covered seeds.  (Take a look at this detail shot – it’s the plant on the far right). The bent bristles sticking out from each seed case are called awns. There is one of these whisker-like appendages attached to each seed. When the seed falls to earth, humidity changes cause the awns to straighten out and wave from side to side.  These motions act to burrow the seed into the ground.  The plant plants itself, you could say. 

  I have one of the Indian Grass panicles next to me at my desk. It is sticking out of a Storm Trooper cup, just in case you want to know.  Every now and then I’ll reach over and pluck a seed and lightly apply the crooked awn to my tongue in order to wet it slightly. When I set it down on the table, the tiny thing comes to life and begins wiggle and a rotate.  The action, while not fast, is amazingly quick for a plant.  This is the kind of excitement that grasses can lead to.

  The Little Blue Stem, on the other stem, doesn’t have the crooked awn system but instead presents its seeds at the end of a crooked little stalklet (see detail here).  The seeds have nice little Elizabethan collars about them.  These seeds do nothing when you lick them, but so what.

  Both of these plants can be considered upland Prairie plants.  As such they only grow in slightly acidic sandy soil.  My overall point here is that these plants stand as a vestige of what much of southern Michigan looked like before the days of agriculture. The southern three tiers of Michigan counties were originally covered with mixed prairies and oak groves in the old days.  It is believed that 150 square miles of grasslands once covered this region.  In fact, there is even pretty good evidence that the quintessential prairie roamer himself, the bison, could be found in these Michigan grasslands as late as the 1700’s.

  The native grasslands were the first areas plowed up by our agricultural ancestors, so they have essentially been replaced by alternate grasses like timothy, wheat, and corn.  The piece of grassland adjacent to Telegraph appears to be a remnant from the early days – a strip prairie preserved in the right of way corridor granted by a very old road and a very old railway route. Both the bluestem and Indian grass are hardy survivors. Though mowers, plows and herbicides have kept them in check, they cling to the landscape and speak volumes about our past. If you stop to listen, they are saying “Go ahead, lick an awn – I dare you.”


  1. I’ve read about this wiggling awn thing before somewhere. And the more I discover about grasses, the more I want to learn. I’ve even got a couple grass “field guides” (I use the term very loosely) – some day I will spend a bit more time trying to figure out what we have. This post has just given me one more incentive.

    Comment by Ellen — March 26, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

  2. Beautifully written! This article reminds me of the book, Prairyerth. Passion over nature, exploring and the Tall Grass Prairies! Thank you for this site. I’m trying to find the cat grass that actually has seed heads like large cat claws. 5 years ago, I had planted a cat grass that bore this seed head and thought it would make a good food source. Unfortuately, it looked very dangerouse for my angora rabbits that hopped and foraged thru the garden.
    (Jewelweed (eastern territory) has that sprangy seed action of your Indian Grass) I’ll read on…Thank You!

    Comment by Gail Otto — May 2, 2010 @ 9:54 am

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