Little Blue

File:4th Place - Coyote in Little Bluestem in Red Hills (7469132472).jpg

Coyote in Little Bluestem in Red Hills
by Greg Kramos

“A child said, what is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands; how could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he. I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.”

–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

NCDC USA Drought Map
by Richard Heim

Rain, rain, rain. We’ve had rain on several days the past few months but the Earth is still thirsty! The National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) released September through December’s Palmer Z drought index numbers and 52% of the upper Midwest, Plains, and Western half of the United States are still experiencing drought conditions. Despite the lack of moisture this season, Little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, a native perennial bunchgrass, thrived.

A plant’s metabolism is partially responsible for its survival during extreme weather conditions. Perennial grasses can be classified as either C3 or C4 plants. Classification as a C3 or C4 plant is determined by the metabolic or biochemical pathway the plant uses to capture carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. While the C3 pathway is present in all grass species, the additional C4 pathway evolved in species adapting to very wet or dry habitats. 

The C3 and C4 metabolic pathways are very different from one another. Each pathway is associated with a plant’s growing requirements. Little bluestem is a warm season, sun-loving, short grass species with preference for mesic to dry growing conditions and a C4 metabolism. Much like the weather of 2012, extremely dry growing conditions were experienced during the Great Drought of the 1930s. In 1932, Weaver and Fitzpatrick noted that Schizachyrium scoparium was more drought tolerant than some other prairie grass species found in the plains of North America. More recently, Hake conducted physiological field studies confirming the species-specific drought tolerance of Little bluestem. 

Little bluestem

Little bluestem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Global climate change has brought about conditions of drought, high temperatures, and increased levels of nitrogen and carbon dioxide providing C4 plants, like Little bluestem, with a distinct advantage over those possessing the C3 metabolic pathway. In spite of its toughness, Little bluestem’s clumped foliage is delicate and beautiful. Slender, erect, blue-green stems or culms appear in August and reach 2-3 ft. tall by September. The alternate, 1/4 inch wide and 10 in. long leaves are located on the lower part of each culm. In late fall, the culms and leaves turn a rusty-red color and are topped with white tufts of shining seeds. 

Spikelet

Spikelet

The tufts of shining white seeds or spikelets form on 1 1/4 to 3 in. stalks or racemes the end of each culm. Several pairs of spikelets occur on opposite sides of the raceme’s central stem. Between the central stem of each spikelet, long white hairs are produced. Two pairs of spikelets are produced; a sessile, fertile spikelet and a sterile spikelet. The fertile spikelet is about 1/4 in. in length and the sterile spikelet is 1/8 in. in length. Each fertile spikelet produces a single elongated grain. The floret’s anthers are brown to reddish brown and the stigmas are pale purple in color. 

Below the ground, Little bluestem possesses a dense and fibrous root system. Reaching 5 to 8 ft. in depth, the predominantly vertical roots provide both erosion control and protection from drought. Little bluestem has a symbiotic relationship with the fungus, arbuscular mycorrhizae, which improves its supply of water and nutrients. In return, Little bluestem transfers 20% of its plant fixed carbon to the fungus. In light of its erosion control and drought tolerance characteristics, Little bluestem is often used in conjunction with other C4 grasses for prairie restorations and revegetation of abandoned cultivated lands. 

Little bluestem in winter

Little bluestem in winter

An adaptable grass, Little bluestem thrives a wide range of soils and tolerates  harsh growing conditions but prefers neutral to slightly basic sites with deep, shallow, sandy, fine-textured and rocky soils that are characteristically medium to dry, well-drained, and infertile. The plant thrives in full sun but will tolerate light shade. Little bluestem readily seeds itself. Caution should be exercised when planting it in small areas with ideal growing conditions since reseeding can result in Little bluestem becoming the dominate species in the garden. 

Growing conditions, including climate and soil type, have an effect on the geographical distribution of a grass. The Little bluestem range extends throughout all of the lower 48 states except Nevada and are most prominent in the Great Plains and open canopy of the eastern United States. More state specific plant locations can be found on the USDA’s Schizachyrium scoparium distribution map. Common throughout Illinois, Little bluestem’s native habitats include hill, gravel, sand, loam, and clay prairies, scrubby barrens, rocky slopes of thinly wooded bluffs, sandy savannas, hilltop glades, dunes, gravel railroad right of ways, and abandoned fields. 

Little bluestem’s vast geographic distribution also plays an important role in various ecosystems throughout North America. It is the food source and/or cover for songbirds, upland game birds, ground birds, mammals, and insects. During the winter in Illinois, Little bluestem seeds are favored by the Field Sparrow, Tree Sparrow, Slate-Colored Junco, and other small songbirds. Other Illinois avian inhabitants such as the Prairie Chicken, Sharp Tailed Grouse and the quail use the foliage of Little bluestem as nesting material or cover. The foliage of Little bluestem found in Illinois is quite palatable to bison, cattle, White Tailed Deer, and other mammalian herbivores. Ecologists have identified an invaluable relationship between the Little bluestem and insects. Insects are abundant in prairies, providing an ample food source for others higher up in the food chain, birds in particular. Little bluestem’s leaves are the food source for butterflies, skippers, grasshoppers, spittlebugs, leafhoppers, thrips, and beetles. In Illinois, the native grass provides nutrients for Atrytonopsis hiannaHesperia leonardusHesperia meteaHesperia ottoeHesperia sassacusNastra lherminierPolites origenes, numerous grasshopper species,  Prosapia ignipectusFlexamia delongiLaevicephalus unicoloratusIllinothrips rossi, and Aniostena nigrita.

Commonly found in prairies across North America, the ornamental, native bunchgrass, Little bluestem, plays an important role in ecological restorations. Not only does it provide a food source for many native fauna species, it is also a drought resistant native grass, particularly suited for survival in our changing environment. Weather extremes are the new norm throughout the world. This phenomena seems to be born out in an unseasonably warm and dry year in Illinois. Our winter this year has also been warm and dry. In fact, the 2012 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Climatic Data Center recently stated that the recent year’s weather “…is consistent with what we would expect in a warming world.” Clearly environmental adaptations are necessary for ecosystems to remain sustainable in a warming world. This report will require all gardeners, even native gardeners, and prairie restorationists will need to adapt their plant selections to accommodate the climate change. I plan to do my part to help create a more sustainable landscape by planting a few more Little bluestems in my garden!

Related articles

Resources:

Coucher, T., “Little Bluestem: Schizachyrium scoparium.” Field Guides, eoL: Encyclopedia of Life Learning, Harvard Univerity. N.D. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Maricle, Brian R. and Adler, Peter B., “Effects on precipitation and photosynthesis and water potential in Andropogon gerardii and Schizachyrium scoparium in a southern mixed grass prairie.” Environmental and Experimental Botany. 16 Mar. 2011 Web. 12 Dec. 2012.

Schizachyrium scoparium (Mich.) Nash.” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. University Texas at Austin. N.D. Web. 12 Sep. 2012.

Hake, D. R. etal.,”Water stress of tallgrass prairie plants in central Oklahoma.” J Range Management, Mar. 1984. Web. 2 Oct. 2012.

Hilty, John. “Little Bluestem.” Illinois Wildflowers. N.P. 2002. Web 10 Nov. 2012.

Steinberg, Peter D. ” Schizahyrium scoparium.” Fire Effects Information System, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory. 2002. Web. 24 Jan. 2013.

” Plants Profile, Natural Resources Conservation Service, United States Department of Agriculture. 2002. Web. 1 Jun. 2012.

“State of the Climate Drought Annual 2012.” National Climatic Data Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 19 Jan. 2013.

Weaver, J. E. and Albertson, F. W., “Effects of the Great Drought on the Prairies of Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas”  Agronomy Faculty Publications. 1 Oct. 1936 Web. 1 Sept. 2012.

Weaver, J. E. and Fitzpatrick, T. J., “Ecology and relative importance of the dominants of the tallgrass prairie.”  Botanical Gazette. 1 Apr. 1932 Web. 1 Oct. 2012.

“What are C3 and C4 native grass Species?” NSW Government, Department of Primary Industries: Agriculture.  N.D. Web 1 Nov. 2012 .

Advertisements

The Heat is On

Sea of Gold

[The Prairie] seems to be a constant contradiction of itself. It is delicate, yet resilient; it appears to be simple, but closer inspection indicates that it is extremely complex; it may appear monotonous, but it is diverse and ever-changing throughout the seasons.

– James Stubbendieck

Dry Dry Dry

Dry Dry Dry Photo by Andreas

Here in the Midwest, especially northern Illinois, the summer’s excessive heat and humidity have wreaked havoc on my newly planted native plugs. The National Climatic Data Center  (NCDC) has described the 2012 climate patterns as a drought. Drought is very difficult to define, nevertheless, “[c]ommon to all types of drought is the fact that they originate from a deficiency of precipitation resulting from an unusual weather pattern” (Enloe). The NCDC uses the Palmer Drought Index for annual drought comparisons. The balance between moisture demand also known as temperature driven evapotranspiration and moisture supply in the form of precipitation are the variables used to measure the Palmer drought indices. Short term moisture conditions for the current month are recorded as the Palmer Z Index, while long term moisture conditions are portrayed with the Palmer Hydrological Drought Index (PHDI) and Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI). More specifically, the PHDI and PDSI represent the current month’s cumulative moisture conditions integrated over the last several months.

Drought Map for July 2012
by Richard Heim

U.S. Drought Map for August 2012
By Brewer and Love-Brotak

Illinois Drought September 2012
by Brian Fuchs

At the end of June, the NCDC reported that 55% of the United States was affected by “moderate to extreme drought” and 33% of these were experiencing “severe to extreme drought”. On of July 26th 2012, the NCDC reported that 63.9% of the contiguous U.S. was experiencing moderate to extreme drought conditions based on the Palmer Drought Indices. At the time of this post, The NCDC has reported that 63.2% of the lower forty-eight states were still experiencing drought conditions despite the some much-welcomed precipitation deposited on much of the Midwest from Iowa to Ohio. Despite the recent wetter and cooler temperatures here in Illinois, the crops and my native plugs have been devastated by this summer’s heat and dry conditions. Nevertheless, blooming two to three weeks earlier than normal and experiencing a shortened bloom time, my established natives have continued to thrive.

Carolyn Harstad, author of Go Native! Gardening with Native Plants and Wildflowers in the Lower Midwest has noted that native plants, once established, are more likely to survive and thrive because they have adapted to a region’s climatic swings. The climatic adaptation of deep and extensive root systems by native plants has reduced their need for supplemental watering, fertilizing, and chemical maintenance. Artificial fertilization and herbicide use all contribute to the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is a force currently degrading our environment through the destruction of natural resources. Scientists have shown that environmental degradation results in climatic extremes or global warming. While some will say droughts and temperature extreme are all part of nature, one thing is for certain, prairies have the resiliency to rebound and diversify in harsh temperatures and hydrologic conditions. Chris Helzer, an ecologist, director for The Nature Conservancy, and blogger on The Prairie Ecologist has cited a fascinating article about the 1934 drought entitled, Effects of the Great Drought on the Prairies of Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas by prairie biologist, J.E. Weaver detailing the drought response of prairie plants. After reading this paper, I believe the continued survival of my established native plants during the “Drought of 2012”  supports both Weaver’s and Harstad’s observation that established native plants are equipped to withstand climatic stress.

Plugs newly planted in May on the steep, southern facing slope for the most part have all succumbed to the climatic extremes of the excessive temperature and dryness. While I am aware that new transplants require consistent watering and weeding during their first year of growth, the planting site’s topography coupled with the lack of rain, and the inability to access creek water were more than either the plants of I could manage. However, there is hope. Just like Dibol and Doverspike reported in their posts, “Drought of 2012″ and “Plant survival in harsh drought conditions” of Prairie Nursery’s blog The Native Plant Herald, my established creek side prairie garden has bloomed. The garden composed of  Lanceleaf CoreopsisButterflyweedPurple ConeflowerBlack-eyed SusanYellow ConeflowerRough BlazingstarOx Eyed Sunflower, IronweedCrooked Stem Aster and New England Aster seem unaffected by the drought and extreme temperature this summer and flowered magnificently. Little BluestemPrairie DropseedSwitchgrass, and Sideoats Grama, all deep rooted grasses, planted among the forbs also look healthy and have begun to produce fruit. Fruit, sustenance for the the fauna has been produced in spite of the inhospitable weather conditions.

Creek Side Survivors

Pale Purple Coneflower

The essence of a gardener is hope and faith. The hope continues based on Helzer, Muller, and Weaver’s experience that established plants that have succumbed to a year’s climatic extremes re-emerge in the coming spring, stronger and healthier than ever. The butterflies sipping the nectar of the New England Aster remind me that they are symbolic of resurrection. The butterfly forms a cocoon, appears dead, only later to emerge more beautiful and stronger than before. Perhaps even the plugs will be reborn, too. Only time will tell. I have faith, it is supported by my hope that my native plant garden will recover from the Great Drought of 2012.

Yellow Coneflower and Crooked Stem Aster

Related articles

Resources

Dibol, Neil. “Drought of 2012.” The Native Plant Champion: Restoring balance to our landscapes and living spaces. Prairie Nursery. 11 Jul. 2012. Web. 29 Jul. 2012.

Doverspike, Sarie. “Plant Survival in harsh drought conditions.” The Native Plant Champion: Restoring balance to our landscapes and living spaces, Prairie Nursery. 9 Jul. 2012. Web. 29 Jul. 2012.

Enloe, Jesse. “Drought Termination and Amelioration.” National Climatic Data Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. N.D. Web. 6 Aug. 2012.

“Greenacres: Landscaping with Native Plants.” Great Lakes, United States Environmental Protection Agency. 15 Mar. 2012. Web. 20. Jul. 2012.

Harstad, Carolyn. Go Native! Gardening with Native Plants and Wildflowers in the Lower Midwest. Indiana University Press. Bloomington, In. 1999.

Helzer, Chris. “The Great Drought (Again).” The Prairie Ecologist. N.P. 29 Aug. 2012. Web. 1 Sept. 2012.

Mueller, Irene and Weaver, J. E. “Relative Drought Resistance of Seedlings of Dominant Prairie Grasses.” Agronomy Faculty Publications. 1 Oct. 1942 Web.1 Sept. 2012.

Phillips, Jack. “Drought Spreads, Half of US Counties Now Disaster Areas.” The Epoch Times. 1 Aug. 2012. Web. 5 Aug 2012.

Plume, Karl. “Drought eases in U.S. Midwest, worsens in northern Plains.” Reuters. 30 Aug. 2012. Web. 1 Sept. 2012.

“Summer 2012 Drought Update.” National Climatic Data Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 26 Jul. 2012. Web. 27 Jul. 2012.

Weaver, J. E. and Albertson, F. W., “Effects of the Great Drought on the Prairies of Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas”  Agronomy
Faculty Publications. 1 Oct. 1936 Web. 1 Sept. 2012.

%d bloggers like this: