Sunday, July 26, 2015

Red Three Awn Grass

Weather: Rain Monday afternoon; high afternoon temperatures late week. Lowest recorded relative humidity in Santa Fé was 15%, so it was possible to water plants without seeing it all disappear into the air.

What’s blooming in the area: Hybrid tea roses, bird of paradise, fernbush, buddleia, silver lace vine, trumpet creeper, datura, sweet pea, alfalfa, Russian sage, annual four o’clock, hollyhock, bouncing Bess, purple garden phlox, red amaranth, squash, farmer’s single sunflowers, coreopsis, blanket flower, yellow yarrow, Shasta daisy, zinnias, brome grass. Hay cut; can see yellow apples on trees that were late blooming.

Beyond the walls and fences: Trees of heaven, buffalo gourd, yellow mullein, goat’s head, white sweet clover, bindweed, green-leaf five-eyes, Queen Anne’s lace, Hopi tea, plains paper flower, horseweed, wild lettuce, flea bane, gumweed, strap leaf, golden hairy and purple asters.

In my yard: Rugosa roses, yellow potentilla, Saint John’s wort, California poppy, snow-in-summer, coral beard tongue, lady bells, Goodness Grows veronica, catmints, blue flax, larkspur, winecup mallow, pink evening primrose, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, chocolate flower, bachelor button, white yarrow, purple coneflower, Mönch aster, reseeded Sensation cosmos.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, snapdragon, pansy, moss roses, marigold, gazania.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums.

Animal sightings: Small birds, geckos, small bees on sweet white clover, bumble bees on catmint, hornets, ants.

Weekly update: If there were a Mohs scale for the desirability of grass, black grama would be a one end, and June grass at the other. Three awn would be next to it.

At one time red awn had its own Latin name, Aristida fendleriana. Then botanists looked closer and determined a number of similar grasses were actually subspecies of Aristida purpurea. This became the longiseta variety.

Next writers who couldn’t be bothered with such trivia wrote generalized profiles for purple awn grass. They said it was a perennial whose roots could reach 4', and whose flowering heads made it "popular among horticulturalists for use in low water landscaping, especially in the Southwestern United States. Its reddish purple coloring and compact bunchgrass habit make it desirable."

Dennis Tilley and Loren Saint John even went so far as to say "in Arizona and New Mexico its abundance and fair palatability" make it "a highly important source of forage." Well, they’re stationed in Aberdeen, Idaho.

That’s not what the Forest Service said about red three awn in 1937 when it warned the seeds "often become a menace by getting into the eyes and nostrils of grazing animals, as well as penetrating the wool of sheep and lowering fleece values." Janet Howard added, it was "rated poor to fair in energy content and poor in protein value."

I’ve been picking pieces of its awns out of my clothes all week and I can tell you who was correct. Sometimes subtle distinctions are more important than overriding generalities.

It is true it’s attractive when you drive by it on the shoulder in April.

What isn’t obvious from a distance is that the panicles are made of smaller units nesting within each other, rather like stacked shuttlecocks.

By late May those silky red strands are turning tan and expanding.

When the seeds are ripe, the head falls off. If you try to pick it up, the ends you so innocently clutched scratch you hand. It falls apart.

You learn to treat it like a Russian thistle carcass, and only touch it from the base.

The long awns turn brittle, and break when brushed against. They are thin enough to pierce a heavy sweatshirt and weave into the fleece where they abrade your skin. They are nearly impossible to remove.

The seeds themselves have sharp ends like needle grass, and are no harder to remove. But when nothing is left of the culm stalk but the attachment, even that breaks off. It’s purely gratuitous aggression for it to attach itself. It serves no reproductive function.

The one good thing is that, contrary to the generalized statements, it does not behave like a bunch grass. Maybe because I pull it whenever I recognize a seed head, it doesn’t create the deep mats typical of bunch grasses that have to be dug out with a shovel. The roots remain fibrous like an onion and can be jerked out. They don’t even steal much dirt.

Howard, Janet L. "Aristida purpurea," 1997, in United States Forest Service, Fire Effects Information System, available on-line.

Tilley, D. and L. St. John, L. "Purple Threeawn" (Aristida purpurea), USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Center Plant Guide, 2013, quote on desirability.

United States Department of Agriculture. Forest Service, Range Plant Handbook, 1937, quote on seeds.


1. Red three awn grass in bloom with rice grass, 28 May 2007.

2. Red three awn grass in seed with June grass, 31 May 2009.

3. Close up of red three awn flower heads, 19 May 2007.

4. Close up of red three awn seed head, 22 July 2015.

5. Red three awn sections; the bottom left is one section, the one to the right is two, and the seed is above left; 22 July 2015.

6. Red three awn pieces in the inside fleece of my sweatshirt, 23 July 2015.

7. Red three awn seed holder piercing the outside fabric of my sweatshirt, 22 July 2015.

8. Red three awn grass roots, 22 July 2015.

9. Red three awn seed head when entire, 2 July 2012.

10. Red three awn flowers emerging from their sheathes, 18 April 2010.

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