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Big Bluestem along 3 Mile Road

Big Bluestem along 3 Mile Road

I suspect that many drivers traveling Michigan’s roads this autumn are more attracted by the color of the changing leaves than the weeds along the roadside. Recognition of those ‘weeds,’ however, can change that viewpoint.

For most of the spring and summer, a grass is just a grass, a clump of green blades, mostly needing mowing. Come late August, however, something amazing happens. The native grasses Little Bluestem and Big Bluestem bloom and embellish many of Michigan’s roadsides with their burnished glory. It may look like dead brown grass to many, but a closer study shows an amazing array of color from the yellow to yellow-orange flames of basal grass leaves to the ripening splendor of the slender reddish, glowing amber or pink stalks.

Once, I too thought of these grasses as weeds, and then I learned a little more about these two native grasses. Big Blue Stem (Andropogon gerardii) once covered the prairies from the Ohio River to the foothills of the Rockies. It was the predominant prairie grass covering much of the Mid-West. By late summer the seed stalks often rose to seven feet, or in some locals, even ten feet (those in my fields grow to six feet!). The name came from the lavender-gray seed heads, the slender finger-like shapes of which gives Big Blue another common name, Turkeyfoot.¬† Red splotches stain the stems, so as the wind whips them, the red and green on the stems seem to blur into blue-gray. For our early settlers, it must have looked like another ocean when late summer winds propelled the tall grasses, which often reached up to 12′, into waves of motion that formed the grass sea. Sometimes I imagine the vast herds of buffalo and antelope living on land covered by this grass or traveling in a wagon where the grass along the trail towers over me. It must have been a remarkable sight.

Big Bluestem Crowned by Maple in October

Now Big Bluestem is known for its superior qualities as forage for cattle, horses, and, to
the hunter’s joy, the Michigan white-tail deer. However, as the settler’s plowed under the prairie grasses in the Mid West and Western states, something else happened: they destroyed roots of the prairie grasses
including the Big Bluestem. Their very deep roots were often deeper than the grass’s
height and had held the soil in place for centuries. When drought hit the prairie, the roots that had acted like anchors for soil and moisture during periodic droughts were gone, and the corn and grain crops planted in place of the grasses, couldn’t hold the soil. The topsoil blew away in great black winds sometimes blowing as far away as New York. This drought resulted in the Dust Bowl, affecting hundreds of thousands of acres of land. John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, depicts the sorrow inflicted from this ecological calamity. (See Ken Burn’s THE DUST BOWL preview.)

Rolla, Kansas, Dust Storm 1935 From the U.S. National Archives, NAID 195691

Rolla, Kansas, Dust Storm 1935 From the U.S. National Archives, NAID 195691

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), often grows next to Big Bluestem along the roadside. Even from the car, the difference can be seen. Little Bluestem is shorter than Big Bluestem, usually reaching only three feet in height. While this grass’s leaves are highly prized for their blue-green summer color, in fall they turn pinkish-tan to brilliant orange with fluffy white seeds running up the stem-like tufts of a hair. This feature gives the grass its other common name of Beard Grass. Little Bluestem lacks the great stature of Big Bluestem, but it has a fragile beauty to distinguish it. The frosted pink or pronounced reddish-tan stalks of Little Bluestem dress an autumn field in rare beauty.

Little Bluestem

Little Bluestem

Another of the predominate prairie grasses, Little Bluestem also exists in greatly reduced circumstances, although the pink-red-orange fall coloring has piqued the interest of landscapers and horticulturists which has established it as a ‘garden plant.’ A few plants have even received cultivar names for certain superior qualities, usually summer or autumn color, and are now available in nurseries. For ranchers and farmers, though, like Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem has great
nutritional value for livestock. Maybe they both can make a comeback.

Now that I know and can identify Little Bluestem and Big Bluestem, I look for them in the fall. Like the red-orange of the sugar maple in autumn, they have become an important indicator of the season. The maple adorns the sky, the bluegrasses gild the ground. It is most unfortunate that so many counties and townships mow them down at the peak of their glory.

A Michigan Autumn with Little Bluestem

A Michigan Autumn with Little Bluestem

The bloodroot (Sanquinaria canadensis) are just beginning to bloom along the road in a wooded depression. Their fat palm-shaped leaves emerge from the ground furled in tight spears, and their blooms spring up not much higher than six inches. These small native glories of the spring also make wonderful garden plants. I have some that I purchases a few years ago in my woodland garden. They are starting to spread. I think I’ll buy more to help them along the way. If you decide you want some, just be sure that you buy your rootstock from a reliable nursery and don’t dig them out of the wild.

According to Armitage’s Herbaceous Perennial Plants the rootstock has a yellowish-red sap when cut. He says, “The sap was used by the Indians as a dye for coloring and war paint(517).” That’s interesting, isn’t it?

They are very hardy plants but ephemeral in that the foliage dies back in summer. Shade is important, as is springtime moisture. They can be divided after their blooms have died off, but I still think I’ll just buy some more.

Armitage, Allan. Herbaceous Perennial Plants. Varsity Press, Inc. Georgia. 1989.

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