Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sideoats Grama

What’s blooming in the area: Hybrid tea roses, rose of Sharon, Russian sage, buddleia, trumpet creeper, silver lace vine, red yucca, datura, sweet pea, purple phlox, Heavenly Blue morning glories, cultivated sunflowers, Shasta daisy, Sensation cosmos, alfalfa; pods on honey locust; sweet corn and green chili for sale down the road.

Beyond the walls and fences: Tamarix, Apache plume, fernleaf and leatherleaf globemallows, cheese mallow, scarlet bee blossom, white and yellow evening primroses, whorled milkweed, bindweed, purple mat flower, goat’s head, white sweet and purple clovers, lemon scurf pea, stickleaf, buffalo gourd, silver leaf nightshade, Queen Anne’s lace, toothed spurge, prostrate knotweed, lamb’s quarter, Russian thistle, pigweed, ragweed, snake weed, spiny lettuce, horseweed, paper flower, gumweed, Hopi tea, goldenrod, áñil del muerto, heath, golden hairy and strapleaf spine asters, sideoats grama; pods forming on showy milkweed.

In my yard, looking east: Hosta, garlic chives, hollyhock, winecup mallow, sidalcea, baby’s breath, Maltese cross, bouncing Bess, large-leaf soapwort, Jupiter’s beard, pink evening primrose, pink salvia, Shirley poppies, cutleaf coneflower; buds on Autumn Joy sedum and Maximilian sunflowers; new leaves emerging on oriental poppies.

Looking south: Floribunda and rugosa roses, Illinois bundle flower, reseeded and new Crimson Rambler morning glories, sweet alyssum and zinnia from seed; hips turning red on rugosas.

Looking west: Caryopteris, David phlox, ladybells, catmints, calamintha, flowering spurge, sea lavender, lead plant, perennial four o’clock, Mönch aster.

Looking north: Golden spur columbine, Hartweig evening primrose, Mexican hat, Parker’s Gold yarrow, chocolate flower, blanket flower, yellow cosmos from seed, anthemis, black-eyed Susan, chrysanthemum.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansy, snapdragon, moss rose, nicotiana, impatiens; first fruit developing on Sweet 100 tomato and Sandia pepper.

Inside: Zonal geranium, aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Hummingbirds, gold finches, other small birds, gecko, back dragonfly, small bees, hornets, harvester and small black ants, cricket.

Weather: Air cleared last weekend and temperatures got lower at night, higher during the day; then the clouds and invisible, but irritating ash returned; temperatures returned to normal and rain passed over; last slight rain 8/13/11; 14:17 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Several weeks ago, when we got our first slight rain, I talked to a local woman who thought it had been enough to put out the Las Conchas fire. At my place, the gentle shower lasted 15 minutes. Smoke was still rising in the evenings.

We’ve had more rain since, about the amount we get in a typical August monsoon front with no hurricane behind it. There were days when I could see the Jemez shrouded in rain clouds. The fire may be out, or smoldering, in many places, but it’s still burning to the north.

I must confess, however, I made an assumption as naive as that woman’s. I thought now we’ve had some rain, things will green up.

Then I walked through the arroyo last Sunday. There was no sign of the moisture in the top inches of soil I’d seen the previous Tuesday. The sun had sucked it out. The only things blooming were scattered golden hairy asters and a tamarix. Scurf peas and four-wing saltbushes were the only large masses of green. Everything else was gray or the color of dry sand, even what remained of last year’s grasses.

During the great drought of the 1930's, John Weaver was “impressed with the bareness of the soil” in Nebraska. Gone were the layers of vegetation that began with mosses and lichens. Gone was the “former mulch of fallen leaves, flower parts, stems.” For a while, fungi had feasted on organic matter left by dead roots and crowns in the soil, but finally even they disappeared, leaving not even their smell.

The land didn’t begin recovering until the spring of 1941, when normal levels of humidity, temperature and wind patterns returned. Even then it took months with three times the normal amount of rain for water to percolate through the dry soil to collect at depths needed by roots.

During the dust bowl years, the common prairie grass, little blue stem, died and was replaced by western wheat grass with an understory of blue grama or buffalo grass that was fleeing the even dryer lands to the west. In many places, that wave was followed by sideoats grama. It went from being insignificant to the second most common grass in parts of Nebraska.

Bouteloua curtipendula has perhaps the widest distribution of any warm season grass, growing from Ontario to British Columbia in the north through Nicaragua and Guatemala. It disappears in the isthmus, but appears again to the south in Venezuela, Columbia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Uruguay.

Within its range, it tends to prefer rocky, limey soils. Early in the last century, the perennial grew in the mountains in this area where Mexican peddlers gathered the stalks in August, then dried them to sell to Tewa speakers who used them for brooms. When the ends broke, women used the remains to brush their hearths and metates. When little was left, they used bound bunches on their hair.

More recently, sideoats grama has been reported growing with one-seed juniper in the Jemez on “steep, colluvial slopes of escarpments, and hill or mountainsides” with a slope greater than 15 degrees and 15" to 19" of precipitation a year. Around Los Alamos, it’s found on canyon sides and mesa tops, including in Jemez and White Rock canyons. Occasionally, it blooms along the shoulder down here.

While it’s widespread, sideoats grama normally is not particularly common. Before 1933, it appeared in many of the prairie plots observed by Weaver, but never reached 1% of the vegetative cover. The seed has a short life span and doesn’t bank. However, it germinates easily, develops quickly and can survive on 12" of precipitation a year. With its competitors gone, it flourished.

By 1937, there were reports that some plants were diseased. By 1939 the unknown problem had spread. However, by then, the USDA had collected seed from vigorous plants and was developing disease-free alternatives. One of the first was Vaughn, found far east of the Manzanos in 1935 and released in 1940.

The seed I planted in 2005 came from a retailer in Wisconsin. The catalog didn’t mention a cultivar, perhaps because the existence of a name would have countered the image of it as a true native plant. I suspect it was one intended for that area, since very few seeds germinated here.

Sideoats grama has adapted itself so well to its environment, that two subspecies exist in this country, curtipendula in the north and caespitosa in the south. In México, a research team collected samples from 577 populations in 13 states. They identified 177 ecotypes that fell into six different groups. Germination success depends in part on the geographic origin of the seed.

Still, one plant survives from 2005, and several come up where seed was scattered among the rugosas the following spring. Most of the year, they resemble June grass. The clump of long, wide green blades stands above the neighboring Bermuda grass. If you’re so inclined, Richard Wynia says you can look for long hairs at the edges of the leaves near their bases to distinguish it.

However, when it blooms, and it’s blooming now, there’s no mistaking it. The stalk rises one to three feet. The seeds hang from one side and their weight bends the culm. In more favorable climates, the spikes are composed of rows of spikelets like those of blue or black grama. The Lakota called it “banner waving in the wind.” Kiowa warriors, who had killed in battle, wore it because it resembled a feathered lance.

The purple bracts surrounding the spikelets protect two flowers, one fertile, one sterile. Hanging from the first are bright red anthers that wait for the wind to blow pollen to the waiting feathery, white stigmas. Each flower can produce one seed. The rudimentary floret is often three awns above the fertile one. In fall, the spikes drop, leaving behind the purple attaching stems.

While side-oats grama has proven itself able to survive drought and pioneer devastated lands, its success with fire is more ambiguous. It does better after early spring fires, than summer ones like ours. The southern subspecies recovers better than the northern one. In the best of cases, it can take two or three years for new seedlings to reach maturity, and that’s when you have enough rain.

Chadwick, Amy C. “Bouteloua curtipendula,” 2003, in United States Forest Service, Fire Effects Information System; includes studies on fire, seed banking, viability and germination.

Morales Nieto, Carlos Raúl, Adrián Quero Carrillo, Alicia Melgoza Castillo, Martín
Martínez Salvador and Pedro Jurado Guerra. “Forage Diversity of Sideoats Grama [Bouteloua curtipendula (Michx.) Torr.] Populations in Arid and Semiarid Regions of Mexico,” Técnica Pecuaria en México 47:231-244:2009.

Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington, and Barbara Friere-Marreco. Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.

Schmoller, David. “Side-oats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula),” 1994, Northern State University’s The Natural Source - An Educator's Guide to South Dakota's Natural Resources website; on Lakota name.

United States Department of Agriculture. Forest Service. Plant Associations of Arizona and New Mexico. Volume 2: Woodlands, 1997 revision; on Jemez.

Vestal, Paul A. and Richard Evans Schultes. The Economic Botany of the Kiowa Indians, 1939, cited by Dan Moerman, Native American Ethnobotany, 1998.

Weaver, John E. and F. W. Albertson. “Major Changes in Grassland as a Result of Continued Drought,” Botanical Gazette 100:576-591:1939; on bareness of soil, role of fungi. University of Nebraska Digital Commons has made many of Weaver’s papers available on line.

_____ and _____. “Resurvey of Grasses, Forbs, and Underground Plant Parts at the End of the Great Drought,” Ecological Monographs 13:63-117:1943; comments on 1941 as a wet year.

_____ and R. L. Fowler. “Occurrence of a Disease of Side-oats Grama,” Torrey Botanical Club Bulletin 67:503-508:1940.

Wynia, Richard. “Side-oats Grama,” USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service plant guide, 2007.

Photograph: Sideoats grama spikelets, 7 August 2011.

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