Flora and fauna of the Athens County area, and occasionally habitats outside Ohio. Subject matter will consist of both interpretive material and taxonomic issues in plant and animal identification.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pass The Grass

Grasses? Are you insane? Well considering I tried the yellow composites, goldenrods, and asters, I must be certifiable. 

Grasslands such as prairies, meadows, and savannahs make up nearly a third of the land mass on the planet. Corn, sugar cane, and most of the cereals you eat come from grasses. Grasses use C4 photosynthesis, which in simple terms means they can retain more water and carbon dioxide than other plants.

Since I work with Lynn Holtzman, who has 20 years experience with grasses in western Ohio, I am finally getting a chance to learn some of the species. So I present about two dozen here, by both seed types and other morphological characters, and some of their value to wildlife. See part 2 of Grasses here

Proso Millet & Pearl Millets. There are so many varieties and hybrids, it's often hard to narrow them down. Most Proso Millets have a plume-like bloom. These straighter, more erect types are usually tagged as Pearl Millet, Pennisetum glaucum.

Millet is an easy grass to recognize both in white bloom or later when brown. Looking like a cattail, (the old latin name was P. typhoideum) millets are utilized by deer, waterfowl, and songbirds. Mourning Doves especially like them.

Sorghum bicolor. Sorghum (or Milo) has a large fat plume-like bloom in the summer.

As the seeds ripen, they turn from white to red. Sorghum is used as food by humans worldwide. It is planted in food plots for deer, quail, turkey, rabbits, pheasants, and waterfowl. It is especially important as a winter food because the fruit heads persist.

Sorghum has a thick stalk and leaves that remind you of Corn. Sorghums have a wide white midrib on the leaf.

Here is a planted field of both Sorghum and Millet. The grass towering over both is Johnson Grass, Sorghum halepense. Like all Sorghums, they have wide leaves with a white center vein.

Johnson Grass can be highly invasive and take over an entire field.

Prairies are dominated by a number of grasses. Here are a few of the common indicator species. Remnant prairies are being protected today because we have lost 90% of our historical grasslands in the United States. Many parks and nature centers are replanting prairie plots for seed sources and educational purposes.
Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardi, is sometimes called Turkeyfoot Grass. It's bloom tends to appear in branches of three. This was one the most dominant of grasses in original prairie sites.

It has a rather showy bloom for a grass. This is a very tall species, and one of several that has a bluish white or glaucous look to the stem. Big Blue tends to be found in the moister areas of prairies.

The feathery awns of Little Blue Stem, Schizachyrium scoparium, make it distinct from Big Bluestem. This is also a much smaller plant.

When looking at the stem of Little Blue, you will see alternating sections of red and green color. This serves to separate it from the similar fruiting species Broomsedge Grass, Andropogon virginicus in the fall and winter. Broomsedge stems are solid green in summer, turning all tan in fall. See more on Broomsedge in 'grasses part 2'.

Another common indicator is Switchgrass, Panicum virgatum. Folklore tells us the name is derived from the fact the plant resembled a "switch" used in corporal punishment for misbehaving kids on the prairie.

Switchgrass can be recognized by the wide spreading plume, typical of Panicum grasses.

At the joint of the leaf blade and sheath is a conspicuous cottony patch of hair in the shape of a V. This is an important I.D. character when it's a seedling.

Tall yellow-orange seed heads that do not spread out like Switchgrass tells us this is Indian Grass, Sorghastrum nutans. A large variety of insects feed on these prairie grasses, thus providing food for open field songbirds.

As Indian Grass begins to grow, look for leaves to branch off from 45 to 90 degree angles.

Even without the showy flower heads, you can identify Indian Grass by pulling the leaf away from the stalk and looking for two sharp points. It looks like rabbit ears, or the sighting on an old rifle.

Indian Grass, Big Blue, and Switchgrass tend to be the three most common species planted in prairies. Indian Grass is another one of those whose stems appear bluish. This is a food source for Bison, and an important cover plant for animals to bed down in. Harrier hawks will nest in these grasses.

Leaving the prairies for now, there are many other common grasses out there such as the Foxtails. Trying to identify Foxtails by the seed head is unreliable, as the two pictured above may very well be the same species. Some of the greenish species will turn orange brown late in the season.

You have to look in the joints where the leaf meets the stem. The seed heads pictured above are likely Green Foxtail, Setaria viridis. In the first leaf picture you will see hair standing up at the base of the leaf, typical of Yellow Foxtail, Setaria lutescens (glauca). The second picture shows NO hair at the same location, making that Green Foxtail. A third species, originally absent from Ohio flora is the Giant Foxtail, S. faberi. It's spreading rapidly throughout the country and becoming a problem in agricultural fields. Look for hairy leaf blades on that species.

Blue-green in color, these long skinny compact seed heads make Timothy, Phleum pratense, easy to identify. This is an excellent cover plant for birds such as Bobolinks and Ring-neck Pheasants. There is debate whether or not Timothy is truly native to North America.

Here's Timothy in bloom. Quite the difference eh?

While not always absolute, whenever I see a seed head in this spread out form, I start to think maybe a panic grass.

This is Fall Panic Grass, Panicum dichotomiflorum. Fall Panic grass forms a basal cluster with stems radiating out in all directions.

Even if not in seed, Fall Panic can be identified by the smooth joint and stem. For some reason this look reminds me of a horses leg and knee.

This wicked witch doesn't shave her legs. Looking the same in both seed head and growth form, the Witch Grass, Panicum capillare, is different than fall panicum by the long hairs covering the stem.

This rather plain looking plant is Rice Cutgrass, Leersia oryzoides. Apparently the person who named it thought it resembles Rice, but I'll leave that observation up to you. It prefers wetland soils. Walk through a field of this in a short sleeved shirt, and you'll understand why it's called cutgrass! This plant serves as a host to several species of skipper butterfly caterpillars, and is also fed on by wetland sparrow species, various ducks, and wading birds. The seedhead is in a spread out pattern.

The identification character to look for is above the joint. The stem is bristly hairy, but smooth below the joint.

Looking nearly identical is the White Cutgrass, Leersia virginica. Look at the stem to see the difference between it and rice cutgrass. Other than a few loose hairs, the sheath is smooth above and below the joint. This species tends not to be as abrasive to the skin. The other pictures show the seedheads do NOT spread out like Rice Cutgrass, but stay in this narrow 'needle shaped' form.

Often overlooked is Redtop, Agrostis stolonifera.  Sometimes called Bentgrass, it is recognized by the whorled branching, and reddish-purple seedhead that eventually turns brown. In silhouette, it looks like a small Spruce tree. Redtop can grow in a variety of sites and has been used as a forage plant for domestic animals. It is a non-native species introduced from Europe. It does make a good cover plant for birds and small mammals.

Tall Fescue, Festuca arundinacea (elatior), is another introduced grass from Europe. The flowers are loosely arranged, and spread throughout the stem. The light colored area on the leaf, the auracle, is usually white and lobe-like. Rub your fingers along the leaf edges, it is coarse.

Walk through just about any abandoned field around here and you'll come across the dark red to wine colored Purpletop, Tridens flavus. Purpletop makes good forage and is a sought after species for wildlife cover. Various mice and voles feed upon it.

If the color doesn't help you identify it, rub the flower head and/or the main stem. It will feel wet or slippery in your fingers. A closeup of the stem shows it is covered in oil.  Another common name for this is Grease Grass.

We all have our own way of recognizing plants. Whenever I see a grass with drooping heads like this It reminds me of Common Oats (Avena sativa).  If not oats, it's probably one of the Brome Grasses. This is Bromus ciliatus, the Fringed Brome.

One of the characteristics of Brome is this 'kinked' area in the center, as if the leaf blade had been squeezed. It will often be in the shape of an M or W. These grasses are good for wildlife cover, and used as a livestock forage. Bromes, especially the introduced species, can be quite aggressive if not controlled.

This is a wetland species known as Prairie Cordgrass, Spartina pectinata. It can be recognized by the tight compact seed heads, and has the appearance of a "roll your own" cigarette. Cordgrass forms dense thickets and provides good nesting cover for dabbling ducks. It's fed on by Muskrats and Canada Geese.

Prairie Three-Awn, Aristida oligantha. This is a small important grass that serves as a pioneer species in reclaiming disturbed sites.

The awns are long and twisted at the base
When looking straight down on the plant, the awns look like narrow helicopter blades.

Made from the same material like a toilet brush, a long and narrow bottlebrush was often used when washing dishes. Bottlebrushes are still used to clean gun barrels. Bottlebrush Grass, Elymus hystrix, is named for the shape of the floral spike. The base of each spikelet is swollen and white with long protruding bristles, either singular or paired. Bottlebrush is a type of Wild Rye, and is common in and around our oak-hickory forests.

Goose Grass, Elusine indica. Spikelets radiate out from the axis and form a seedhead looking like a goosefoot.

Often confused with Crabgrass, it is found in disturbed sites, especially with heavily trampled soils.
The spikelet looks like a zipper. An exotic invasive of disturbed sites, you will want to control this species when managing for native or prairie grasslands.
Looking weak and spindly, this is Smooth Crabgrasss, Digitaria ischaemum. This Crabgrass is non native and highly invasive in disturbed sites. Crabgrass sends out all its seed stalks from nearly the exact same spot.
Another crab grass look alike are the Paspalum species. They also have these double rows of beaded seeds. There are usually less spikelets, but the seeds are larger than crab grass.

Paspalm species do not concentrate their spikelets in one area like Crabgrass, but are found throughout the stem in an alternate pattern. The Goosegrass feels flat to the touch. Crabgrass has needle thin spikelets, and this Paspalum is actually three sided.
Barnyard Grass, Echinochloa crus-galli. Considered a noxious weed in almost very state of the union. It can severely reduce yield in agricultural fields. It's easily recognized by what I call the 'centipede' like seed heads.

Phragmites australis, Giant Reed. While there are native Reed grasses, they tend to be intermixed with other plant species. Introduced varieties form these dense colonies or monocultures reaching 15 feet tall. They spread by rhizomes along the roots and crowd out everything else. In one year they can spread 60-80 feet. Phragmites has become a serious invasive in wetlands around the Great Lakes States, including northern Ohio. They will establish an easy foothold in any wet soil, especially ditches. Pulling runners and spraying is required. The plant is rough and abrasive, and yanking just the stems without pulling the roots can result in serious damage to your fingers.

Crowfoot Grass, Dactyloctenium aegyptium. Another exotic from Asia, it is considered a weed pest. Not yet a problem in our area, it is common in all the southern states, but is making it's way northward.  Recognized by the circular seed head, it can grow in virtually any soil.

All of these photos can be studied closer by clicking on each one.


  1. Outstanding post!!! I really learned a lot from this one...and the photography is getting better to haha.

  2. Very cool post! Will share this on FB.


  3. Thanks for alerting us, Janet.
    Awaiting the sedges.....

  4. Very helpful IDs of these commonly seen and confusing (to me) grasses.

  5. Very detailed descriptions and great photos! Thanks for opening my eyes to the hundreds of varieties of grasses!

  6. wonderfully informative. Thank you!

  7. Hi

    its very informative and presented in very easy way to understand


  8. Love the pics Dennis/Lynn!!! Definitely will help me on tonites quiz lol

    -Garrett Russell

  9. Great Post! Thanks for this!

  10. This really helps, Thank you

  11. Thank you! Being able to finally identify the grass in my yard (turns out to be Green Foxtail) eases my mind. I can't stand it when I don't know what something is!

  12. Oxford mining has just finish reclaiming a portion of my property, my goal is to turn it into a bee haven, left alone the reclaimed areas around here , frankly look like crap, do you have any suggestion for me? Or perhaps a direction to point me?

    1. Thomas, its great to hear you're interested in creating habitat for bees! As you probably know, many of our native bee species are in decline and some are becoming endangered. Habitat loss is part of the problem, so your efforts will certainly help! Check out this website: http://www.pollinatorsnativeplants.com/plant-lists--posters.html

  13. Absolutely amazing article!! very well written! Superb collection of photographs!

  14. Terrific article, can't wait for next summer to check my field.

  15. Thank you for an excellent article. I am currently trying to learn plant identification and this article provided wonderful photos along with highly detailed information to aid me in my journey. Thank you again!