Soft, fuzzy “Y’s” glowing in the late afternoon – that’s what I think of when I see this plant in the fall.
It’s a native grass, of course. A “bunchgrass,” to be specific, as it forms stout clumps, not spreading by runners or rhizomes.
This species is quite common in a wide variety of forest settings throughout all of the Southeastern states.
It is usually found in thinly wooded situations, not too shady and on relatively dry sites, thus avoiding truly wet soils.
It is especially prevalent on roadsides, rocky outcrops and open “old fields” – those that have been abandoned or have gone fallow. It likes poor soil, too, and thus makes an excellent subject for revegetation of old industrial sites.
This species has been an important food source for livestock in the past, and remains similarly valuable for various wildlife species.
It’s also an important ground-cover, providing hiding places for critters and small mammals, as well as nesting sites for birds, especially quail.
In the past, and on the landscape scale, this species is important as well for supporting naturally occurring fires, as do many native grass species.
The presence of this one is large numbers will allow such a fire to burn, ultimately clearing away brush and generally maintaining open habitat needed for a variety of plant and animal species.
Like all grasses, this plant produces stems (or “culms”), round in cross-section, that are ensheathed by the bases of elongated leaves.
All grasses produce very tiny, reduced flowers. The basic flowering unit of a grass is what we call a spikelet, consisting of at least one flower, and all its associated little bracts, hairs, bristles, spines, and botanical whatnot.
Each flower that contains a functioning ovary will be capable of producing a grain, which of course is what we call the fruit of a grass.
You will remember from your botany class that a grain is not a seed; rather it is a fruit containing a seed.
You may also remember that grains, as fruits, don’t crack open to release the seed. Instead, the sprouting seedling grows right through the grain wall.
Now in our Mystery Plant, a single grass inflorescence consists of a pair of racemes, each pair forming a fork.
Each raceme will bear a number of tiny spikelets, these arranged in pairs, AND they are equipped with a lot of slender, silky hairs, giving the whole inflorescence a decidedly “bearded” or fluffy look. Quite pretty to see.
But grasses are not just pretty. They are incredibly important features of our native landscapes, and are historically as well as currently essential for feeding much of humanity.
We derive fuels, paper, fermented beverages, building materials, sod, turf, and ornamental plants from the grasses, which truly are the “Staff of Life.”
Now, not all grass species around here are good guys, though: some are bad weeds. But this one is real cool.
John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Answer: “Broomsedge,” “Splitbeard bluestem,” Andropogon ternarius
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