In this post I will continue the list of the salient warm season grasses of the shortleaf pine-oak-hickory woodland. However, I remind you that there are numerous other grass species that are part of the ecosystem, so these seven grasses (three listed in the previous post and four in this one) represent only a few important “poster children” of the system.
It’s seems odd for me to use the term “important.” What does that mean? For one thing, these grasses are all warm season bunch grasses that offer the high combustibility needed for those all-important hot fires that are required to sustain the grassland ecosystem. Little Bluestem is an exceptionally combustible grass and the dominant grass species in our grassland, therefore it’s the main reason for those hot fires. Otherwise, “important” is in truth a poor term for our purposes. About as close as I can get to the use of the term “important” in this context are the concepts of coefficient of conservatism and site floristic quality.
Coefficient of conservation (C) represents the degree of “non-invasiveness” of a forb or grass, with a rank of one to ten. Plants with a high C value are relatively non-invasive, meaning that they prefer sites that have had little to no soil disturbance in the recent past. Plants of high C value are called “indicator species” because if a site has an abundance of high C value plants, that site is said to have a high floristic quality. Such sites are considered to be close to what we might have found in tall-grass prairie groundcovers during the pre-Columbian era. On the other hand, are the invasive low C value species that invade sites of soil disturbance, such as broomsedge grass, cypress weed, goat weed, dandelion, etc. The concepts of coefficient of conservatism and site floristic quality have become important tools in restoration ecology.
When I teach my restoration ecology classes to environmental science students at Louisiana Tech University, I don’t use the term “important” in this context, I use something that’s probably worse, dollar signs. High C value plants get a $ or a $$ label.
Rough Dropseed, Sporobolus clandestinus, is a double-dollar perennial bunchgrass with a range encompassing the southern Midwest and eastern North America. Sparrows and other small winter birds eat the tiny seeds after they appear in the late fall. In winter the plants are showy and easy to identify because of the bright cream colored leaves making the dropseed grasses stand out and easy to identify.
Rough Dropseed, Sporobolus clandestinus
Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, is a double-dollar member of what’s called the “big four” grasses. The big four are the dominant large perennial grasses of tallgrass prairie ecosystems; the members of the big four are big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass and switchgrass. Big blue is a very large and tall grass of the tallgrass prairie, sometimes reaching up ten feet. Birds and mammals use the grass for cover from predators, and birds make their nests in the plants and they eat its seeds. Big blue is important in giving the soil a strong foundation resistant to erosion, and it’s a host plant for a number of butterfly species. The range of big blue is the Midwest and throughout most of eastern North America.
Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii
Elliot’s Bluestem, Andropogon gyrans, is another high C value large perennial bunchgrass of our woodland grassland system. Its range extends from the southern Midwest and throughout southeastern North America. Its seed is eaten by winter birds during the time when the seed is dispersed in the late fall. The grass has a distinctive fan-like structure composed of leaves and bracts called a spathe that opens like a fan to expose the inflorescence with its many spikelets that contain the seeds.
Elliott’s Bluestem, Andropogon gyrans
Slender Indiangrass, Sorghastrum elliottii, is a striking perennial bunchgrass that grows in the southern Midwest and southeastern North America. You will notice in the photo how the seed heads appear droopy. That’s characteristic of the species and a good field mark. The seed heads are beautiful with their large seeds and shiny awns (the tail-like structures attached to the seed heads). Slender Indian is a double-dollar indicator plant and a member of the big four tallgrass prairie grasses. It’s one of my personal favorites.
Slender Indiangrass, Sorghastrum elliottii
Johnny Armstrong, Author
Rescuing Biodiversity (publishing in June 2023) tells the story of Johnny's attempts at Wafer Creek Ranch to preserve a vanishing Louisiana ecosystem and restore the animal and plant species that once lived there.
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Land Trust for Louisiana
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Bayou Diversity: Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country
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