Sunday, January 20, 2013

Grasses in Winter

Weather: Last snow 1/15/13; 10:04 hours of daylight today.

Early Tuesday morning, the moisture that had been sucked from the Jémez, fell as a thin layer of snow. By afternoon, it had returned to the atmosphere, along with more of my existing snow cover.

What’s still green: Few rose stems; juniper, pine, and other evergreens; yucca.

Black locust stems that held the leaf clusters are dropping on the snow. Few are left on the tree.

What’s red: Cholla; apple, apricot, sandbar willow branches.

What’s grey or blue: Snow-in-summer, winterfat, golden hairy aster leaves.

What’s yellow: Globe and weeping willow branches.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums, aptenia, petunias.

Animal sightings: Small brown birds.

Weekly update: Rice is a wetland grass whose natural variations have been exploited by humans to produce the many types found in grocery stores today. The short grain is preferred in China for its cohesiveness. The long grain is chosen by those like me who detest gummy rice.

Our dryland grasses are as varied in their environmental preferences. And like rice, some repay the attentions paid by humans, some attack those who care for them, and others prefer the wild.

The most common here is needle grass, which tolerates the variable rain that seeps into the prairie. Some years the stems are several feet tall in late spring. In other years, the stalks remain short. The seed heads are designed to disburse. By this time, the bunches of straight, thin blades are indistinct from rice grass. The Stipta comata culms have either broken away, or hold only the remains of the sockets that once aimed the harpoon-pointed seeds at passing creatures.

Rice grass only grows in the barest soils with no competition. Oryzopsis hymenoides thrives down the road, where the owner brutally clears everything that grows several times a summer. It despises my yard, where I leave it be. Each year, it abandons the previous year’s growth along the edge of the drive. New bunches rise from the roots in late spring, that produce the always recognizable seed heads. Then, in late summer, I have to remove the dead plants as a fire hazard.

Black grama grass (at top) has established a few colonies in my yard, but haven’t created satellites. Over time they simply have expanded into irregular circles, much like the neighboring ring muhly. Both plants come with the monsoons. Bouteloua eriopoda may have been valued by the first settlers for cattle feed, but the second is more valuable after they denuded the land. Muhlenbergia torreyi's hollow circles capture monsoon water. The low tufts hold snow that create oases where other seeds can sprout. This time of year, the crosshatchings of fine, waving branches still create purple hazes.

In spring, the invaders brought by humans gravitate to the wetter areas: the cheat grass, the three awn, the June grass. The first are annuals that die away, leaving a layer of winter mulch. Koeleria cristata is a perennial that naively sprouts wherever conditions are promising in spring, then dies in early summer, leaving large, dark gray humps that don’t go away. The stiff stalks grow several feet. When the seed heads are opening, they resemble corn. This time of year, the remains of the flowers are herringboned along the tops of the culms.

My knowledge of the grasses ends when the monsoon begins. Many appear, but none look exactly like the pictures in the Range Plant Handbook. Either they are aliens brought by humans, or so variable they are unidentifiable.

When I moved here, I borrowed a copy of a guidebook to grasslands that said, in the preface, that it was covering grasses everywhere in the country, except in the southwest. The reason? There were too many. So, every year, I watch them, hoping to accumulate enough knowledge to finally identify them.

Since it started to snow in December, I’ve been out taking pictures of seed heads. The light and white backdrop reveal details that are hard to see, and harder to remember. But so far, I’m no closer with identifying any of them. If anyone knows any, I would love to hear.

In the meantime, I give some provisional labels that create a sense of familiarity. One I call black flag must be an alien. It appears after the monsoons along the shoulders of the roads. This year, a few came up for the first time in my yard, next to the newly laid gravel. The seed heads look like feather dusters or shuttlecocks. They’re black when they hold seeds. This time of year, the remains tend to be the color of bleached sand.

Another I call red silk. The clumps resembles needle grass, only the blades are shorter and much finer and take on a reddish hue. In my yard, they show up near the drive or in a path, somewhere there’s water and no company. My neighbor has gathered some, and transplanted them along the drive. Her’s look like they may have bloomed. Buried in the leaves are whirlwinds of fine threads that catch the late afternoon light.

Other grasses haven’t risen to patronymics yet. They simply exist.

One appeared as seedlings last summer, and created a colony down hill from the house after this year’s monsoons. The blades are curly. The culm is stiff. Like the one pictured above, the seed head has the same compact shape as June grass, but disintegrates. I rather suspect it may have been used somewhere last summer when they were reseeding land after the fire. That means, this may be a grass that grows about 7000 feet.

Another monsoon grass grows in a gully down the road, where vehicles have to slow. The leaves are the largest. The stalks rise nearly three feet. The flowers appear late, and alternate along the stiff stalks, then dry in fall. This time of year the survivors are gray. Someone has cut most of them to about a foot from the ground, but left the pigweed. Or, the pigweed took advantage of the added space and grew after the helpful human left.

The last grass of summer grows in gravelly patches in the arroyo bottom. The leaves and stalks are darker red. The culms tend to curve where the seeds were held. I don’t know if the seeds were heavy, or if that’s a useful dispersal mechanism. This time of year, all that’s left are puffs of lint.

1. Black grama grass in a clump that’s been there at least ten years. 1 January 2013.

2. Unknown grass, growing downhill from the house. 17 January 2013.

3. Needle grass growing south of the house. The snow melts around the clumps, but remains in pillows between to provide insulation. 17 January 2013.

4. Rice grass growing along my drive. 5 January 2013.

5. Ring muhly grass growing in the barren land uphill from the house. 15 January 2013.

6. June grass growing in the western shadow of the house. It and the small winterfat shrubs have melted islands around themselves. 15 January 2013.

7. Unknown grass with dark seed head. The finer seeds may either be ring muhly or the grass shown at the bottom. The blades belong to something else. 14 December 2012.

8. Unknown silky grass growing along my neighbor’s drive. 17 January 2013.

9. Unknown tall grass, growing down the road. Pigweed abounds. 17 January 2013.

10. Unknown tall grass, growing in the far arroyo. 17 January 2013.

11. Unknown monsoon grass that grows along the edge of the drive and shoulders of the road. 1 January 2013.

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