Thanks for the Grasses

by Rebecca Shankland
November 1999

The last summer flowers are bleached and faded; the November world looks colorless. But now the grasses, which nobody noticed in summer, have their moment of glory.

Walk, bike, or drive along any of our roads and watch how the sun, low in the winter sky, shines through the waving grasses. Each tiny seed head has its own lacy pattern-sunlight turns it into silvery frosting. Subtle colors that were invisible in the summer emerge-how many colors can you count between papery white and chocolate brown?

Blue grama grass is the workhorse of the mesas and canyons, with one or two perky seed heads like little flags near the top of each foot-high stalk. As the comb-shaped seed head of summer dries, it curls up into a quarter moon or fuzzy eyebrow. Our children called it "Indian feather grass." Bouteloua gracilis is named for the brothers Claudio and Esteban Boutelou (Claudio was a professor of agriculture in Madrid); the second name means "graceful." We are lucky to have this slender, graceful beauty as our dominant grass, blue-green in summer, but covering winter meadows in a pale golden cream.

Its much-less-common companion is the taller side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), with stubby half-inch "oats" marching in two rows up one side of the stem. The 25 or so spikelets are spaced a half-inch apart, giving the stalk a dramatic profile. The summer flowers are purple, but in the winter only the lower stems show a purple-red wash. Both gramas are excellent forage grasses on the range.

New Mexico's best botanical joke is little bluestem, which is none of the above: it can be three feet tall and is strikingly red. Growing in upright bunches, it looks ready to pick for a winter bouquet. The brick-colored stems have numerous fluffy white tufts that glisten when backlit by the sun. This plant was important in the plains, where it provided food for everything from antelope to longspurs. The second part of its scientific name, Schizachyrium scoparium, means "resembling a broom," and indeed its ready-made bundles were commonly used for sweeping Indian pueblo floors.

One reason for calling the three-foot bluestem "little" is that it has a big brother, big bluestem, stretching up to 7 feet tall. It's named Andropogon ("man's beard") gerardi (for a botanist). It too has striking red-toned foliage, but its seed heads are concentrated in a slightly branched 2-inch clump at the tip of the stem, while little bluestem has tufted branches all along the top half of the stem. Big bluestem looks like an elongated fuzzy Q-tip or like the wooly beard of its scientific name. Because of the way the seed heads branch, it also gets the name turkeyfoot.

Should you find a reddish bluestem the height of the little bluestem (2-3 feet) but with its seed head clumped at the top, Q-tip style but unbranched (unlike the big bluestem), you have found our special New Mexico bluestem,.Andropogon scoparius, variety neomexicanus.

Red three-awn is another color oddity: it's no longer red (if it ever was-check it out next summer). This 6-inch grass is a spindly, straw-colored clump of thread-like stems, each one branching almost invisibly into a windmill with three skinny arms 3 inches long, called awns. From a distance it looks teddy-bear soft, but should you pet it, you'll find that the awns are rough bristles attached to the hooked seed-if they don't stick in your clothes for a free ride, they'll nip your fingers. I made the mistake of admiring the soft roadside appearance of this grass up the street and bringing some seeds home. That little mistake has cost me hours of nasty weeding.

A Sherlock Holmes among you might try to find the most curious grass of all. It's called feather fingergrass, having ten tiny 2-inch fingers reaching up at the tip of the 2-3 foot stalk. They are feathery with little seeds, but as the seeds fall off, they leave behind the tiniest ribbed stalks like delicate fishbones. Hitchcock, the authority on grasses, calls it a weed, but it looks quite elegant along the edges of La Senda Road. Maybe the scientists knew better when they named it Chloris virgata, Chloris being the Greek goddess of flowers.

If you're sometimes nostalgic for those bright green expanses of Kentucky bluegrass back east (the ones that demanded frequent weeding and mowing to keep them immaculate), you can always get a fix at the golf course. Better yet, you can wander our wild open spaces wondering at how much better nature does it-dozens of grasses from a few inches to a few feet tall, each with its feathery, bristly, or lacy seed heads gleaming in the winter sunlight.