Sunday, February 28, 2010

Black Grama

What’s still green: Arborvitae, juniper and other evergreens, some rose stems, cholla, prickly pear, yuccas, grape hyacinth, faded Japanese honeysuckle, vinca, coral bells, snapdragons, beard tongues, pink and yellow evening primroses, purple asters, buried chrysanthemums, cheat grass.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, pinks, snow-in-summer, yellow alyssum, saltbush, winterfat.

What’s yellow: Weeping willow and forsythia branches.

What’s red: Apricot branches.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, bougainvillea, Christmas cactus.

Animal sightings: Robins are still around the orchard.

Weather: Monday’s snow didn't stop November’s ice from finally melting; 11:21 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Eliot was wrong. This is the cruelest time of year, when food supplies in traditional societies run low and people use ritualized fasting to stretch remaining stores until spring greens emerge.

Even animals have a hard time. When I walked the prairie last Sunday, the only thing green was juniper. In my yard, the January snows, that came after the days grew longer and afternoons had warmed, killed many remaining leaves.

It was into this barren landscape that Juan de Oñate wandered in 1598. At Picuris pueblo he found Jusepe, a Spanish-speaking Aztec who’d come north with one of the earlier renegade exploration parties. He told him of "deformed cows that breed upon the wide plains of Cibola." Soon after Oñate arrived in the Española valley, he sent his nephew, Vicente de Zaldívar, Jusepe, and 60 men to find the animals.

Herbert Bolton retraced Zaldívar’s route through Glorieta Pass to Pecos pueblo and from there north up the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo. His party saw its first bull about 75 miles from Pecos. They saw 300 head after traveling another miles 25. As they moved east into the plains they saw more and more buffalo until they made an ill-advised attempt to corral some.

The Spanish were cattlemen by heritage. They didn’t report the grasses the animals were eating, only noted the plains were "a peaceful sea with no sort of valley or hill." They’d already called the grasses of the new world grama, because they resembled those they knew in Estramadura.

We now know that blue grama grows east of the mountains, while black grama dominates the lower Rio Grande valley where they began their trek. Bouteloua gracilis has roots three to six feet deep, grows 6" to 8" inches high, and readily reproduces by seed.

Black grama is adapted to arid conditions with more shallow roots that expand underground until a single plant becomes a broad circle. Bouteloua eriopoda only produces seeds in favorable years, and then those seeds germinate unpredictably. The perennial, which can grow to two feet, usually reproduces by above ground stolons that take two successive good seasons to root.

The warm season grass does best between 3500' and 5500'. At Ojo Caliente, north of Española, Carl White found it grew exclusively on the stony remains of ancient gardens. On the local prairie where needle grass predominates, I’ve only seen small scattered plants, mainly along the ranch road and the sides of arroyo feeders.

I have two patches of black grama that must have come from seeds. After ten years, they’re still three feet of concentric rings that produce 10" high stalks from 4" curving blades. They probably stay shorter here because summer temperatures don’t encourage growth as much as they do closer to the Chihuahuan desert.

When cattlemen moved into southern New Mexico in the late nineteenth century they made the same assumption as the Spanish, grass is grass. For years, they were told black grama was a "choice forage grass" that was "highly palatable and nutritious both in winter and summer."

In fact, blue grama withstands heavy grazing and annual burning, but black grama does not. While short grass prairies are being restored in places, the southern New Mexico grasslands have turned into scrub vegetation.

In the late 1940's, Wilbur Watkins and John Knox found black grama didn’t provide adequate amounts of phosphorous or carotene, especially this time of year. In summer, animals supplemented their diets with greens and shrubs.

Earlier the two New Mexico State College professors had found its levels of crude protein ranged from 8.14% in September to 4.67% in March. Blue grama averages 10% levels, with a high of 18% and a low of 8%.

More recently, Joseph Rogers confirmed blue grama had higher protein levels than black in Texas, and that the levels in the latter vary with precipitation. Crude protein begins increasing in March and April and peaks in late May and June. Levels fall whenever there’s rain, and can lose their value completely in wet winters like this. However, in good years, protein levels increase in dried blades in winter.

Spanish settlers came with a solution for variable forage: at home they’d moved their animals between winter and summer pastures. Here, in the 1930's, the interior department found people living in Santa Cruz kept 400 head of cattle near Abiquiú.

Blue grama may have been able to sustained itself and the buffalo, but the plains where they lived were controlled by hostile tribes. If the Spanish were going to settle their northern frontier, they had to stay within the protected valley with its black grama. They could only pray that during Lent they and their animals were strong enough to survive temporary dietary deficiencies that come this time of year.

Notes: Bolton, Herbert Eugene. "Relaciones que Envió Don Juan de Oñate de Algunas Jornadas" in
Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 1542-1706, 1916.

Eliot, T. S. The Wasteland, 1922, begins "April is the cruelest month."

Rogers, Joseph Daniel. "Seasonal Protein Content of Some Important Range Grasses in Lynn County, Texas," 1966; summarizes work of Watkins and Knox.

United States Department of Agriculture, Forrest Service. Range Plant Handbook, 1937, republished by Dover Publications, 1988; source of quotations on black grama as forage.

United States Department of Interior. Tewa Basin Study, volume 2, 1935, reprinted by Marta Weigle as Hispanic Villages of Northern New Mexico, 1975.

Villagrá, Gaspar Pérez de. Historia de la Nueva México, 1610, translated and edited by Miguel Encinias, Alfred Rodrígue and Joseph P. Sánchez, 1992; source of poetic quotation.

White, Carl. Work described by William W. Dunmire and Gail D. Tierney in Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province, 1995.

Photograph: Black grama grass, 21 February 2010, with dead scrub vegetation, winterfat, in back.

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