Saturday, October 18, 2008

Grasses Workshop on Oct 11, 2008

A group of enthusiastic students, most of them landowners, met on Saturday morning, October 11, for a workshop on identifying the important native grasses of the Texas Hill Country. We want participants to understand their importance for land and water conservation as well as for ranching.

The lack of moisture in the last 12 months has impacted our grasses. Last year our grasses were tall and plentiful. This year's grasses are not as tall, thick or robust. The grasses are here, but it is a bit harder to find some of them.

I have taken the liberty of including pictures from the fall of 2007, and that information will be included in the caption if they weren't taken in the last week.

This was an 8 hour workshop, so participants arrived around 8 AM and signed in, put on name tags, got their handouts which included a packet of information and a notebook to tape specimens in as a reference collection. The morning session started with a Power Point by Steven Fulton, the ranch biologist, explaining the difference in the growth pattern of grasses compared to the broad leaf plants (wildflowers, shrubs and trees). Grasses grow from the green portion at the base of the grass plant near its roots. Grazers can eat the top of the plant which doesn't hurt it, and actually stimulates it to grow. Broad-leaf plants grow from the outer tips of its stems. With a model, Steven shows what a grass flower looks like, and compares it to an apple tree blossom. He also discusses the interdependence of grasses and grazing animals.

Steven Fulton starts the workshop with a Power Point presentation about grasses.

This is a model of a typical grass floret with its glumes (at the base of the floret), lemma (the lower bract enclosing the flower of a grass floret), palea , (the upper bract enclosing the flower in a grass floret), stamen (the male, pollen producing organ of the floret), pistil (the female seed-bearing structures of a floret), and stigma (which is the part of the pistil that catches the wind borne pollen. The stigma is often long and feathery which makes it efficient at catching the pollen grains) .

Steven points out characteristics of a grass that help to identify it.

Because many grasses are short, students must get close to the ground to find the small ones. A hard-backed notebook is used for collecting grasses, which are taped into the book, and labeled. No matter how good a photograph is, there is nothing like having a pressed plant. The plant has all of the hairs and other little clues that may distinguish one grass from a similar one. A picture usually does not show the small details.

The Rainfall Simulator, J. David refers to as "The Rain Machine" demonstrates the effect of ground cover on the quality and quantity of water available in soil from rainfall.
In the tray on the right there is a cedar (Ash Juniper) tree and virtually no ground cover. When the "rainfall" hits the bare soil it picks up particles and carries them to the jar marked Runoff and the water in it is brown. Because there are few roots to help the water enter the ground, there is almost no water in the Groundwater jar in the cedar side.
In the tray on the left side the container is full of grass plants
, and when the rain hits them the water is guided to the ground by the grass blades, where the water enters the ground and flows along the fibrous roots to become part of the Groundwater reserves and fills the Groundwater jar with clear water. Very little runoff occurs in grass tray, and so the Runoff jar is empty or has very little water in it.

In the morning we visited a range-site known as "Adobe" to look for specific grasses as well as examine the variety of grasses that grow at that site. It is one of the five range-sites on Selah. The Soil Conservation Service, which is now the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has gathered information about all the soil types, their rangesites, which includes a group of soils types, and the most common plants growing on them. For many counties this information along with aerial photographs of all of the land, is in book form. The information is also available on line. It is called a Web Soil Survey. There are instructions on how to use the site, and there is an encyclopedic amount of information available. I read about the site use, and I imagine you can find almost anything you need or want to know about your property.

A common, desirable,and beautiful grass, little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) grows almost everywhere in Texas because it tolerates a wide range of conditions, temperatures, soil types, and moisture. It provides fairly nutritious grazing for cattle. It is one of the "big 4" grasses of the tallgrass prairie. (Photo taken in fall of 2007).

In this photo J. David is standing in a patch of yellow indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) which is taller than he is. It is a 6 to 8 foot perennial, warm season, native bunchgrass that is one of the "big 4" grasses of the tallgrass prairie. Its seeds provide food for wildlife. (Photo taken in fall of 2007).

This close up of the flowers on the seed head show why it is such a beautiful grass. (Photo taken in fall of 2007).

The last of the "big four" grasses of the tall grass prairie is big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) a 3 to 6 foot tall grass with seed heads that are frequently referred to as turkey-foot because they often divide into three parts. Cattle prefer big bluestem to almost any other grass. Range managers sometime refer to it as a "candy grass", and if cattle are allowed to graze on it for too long it decreases in amount, and big blustem is referred to as an "decreaser" grass. Grasses that increase in an overgrazed pasture are referred to a "increasers". (Photo taken in fall of 2007).

Grass enthusiasts, like me, are thrilled to see healthy stands of big bluestem. (Photo taken in fall of 2007).

We have a large collection of the important grasses in pots for our students to look at and study. During the workshop they are on the rail of the front porch at the Center.

When out in the field it is sometimes hard to keep track of all the different grasses. John, one of our grass students parked his vasey grass (Paspalum urvillei) in his mouth while collecting some bushy bluestem (Amdropogon glomeratus).

Eastern Gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides) likes heavy moist clay soils, and their presence on the edge of the water aid in preventing erosion. The red tassells are the male flowers while the female flowers have a fuzzy filament and are located at the bottom of the flowerhead, near the main stem. The male portion falls off, leaving the seeds of the female portion that looks like corn kernels stacked in a column. Cattle love this grass, and will kill it through overgrazing. (Photo taken June 15, 2007).

Broadleaf woodoats, sometimes called creek oats or inland seaoats, (Chasmanthium latifolium) is a beautiful native grass that grows in shady places in sand, loam or clay. It is one my favorite grasses, and there are patches of it along the Nature trail between Madrone Lake and the Center that I look for each year to see how they are doing. (Photo taken in fall of 2007).

Tuesday evening, October 14th, a large group of Johnson City residents interested in grasses and grass art, gathered at the Johnson Settlement Area to see the new grass demonstration plots planted by the Johnson City Master Gardeners.

The individual grasses in the plots are indicated by plaques beautifully illustrated by Susan Evans, a Master Gardener, and artist, and a regular volunteer at the Bamberger Ranch. The original artwork was hung on the wall of the exhibit center.

Dr. Barron Rector, a Texas A & M University professor and rangeland ecologist talked about grasses, and their place in the history of our region.

He ended his talk by reading the following piece:

In Praise of Bluegrass by John James Ingalls (1833-1900)

John James Ingalls was Senator from Kansas from 1873 to 1891. This address of his was printed in the Kansas Magazine in 1872. (
The speech was written before Kentucky bluegrass was in Kansas. The “bluegrass’ referred to the bluestems of the tallgrass prairie).

Grass is the forgiveness of nature -- her constant benediction. Fields trampled with battle, saturated with blood, torn with the ruts of cannon, grow green again with grass, and carnage is forgotten. Streets abandoned by traffic become grass-grown like rural lanes, and are obliterated. Forests decay, harvests perish, flowers vanish, but grass is immortal. Beleaguered by the sullen hosts of winter, it withdraws into the impregnable fortress of its subterranean vitality, and emerges upon the first solicitation of spring. Sown by the winds, by wandering birds, propagated by the subtle horticulture of the elements which are its ministers and servants, it softens the rude outline of the world. Its tenacious fibres hold the earth in its place, and prevent its soluble components from washing into the wasting sea. It invades the solitude of deserts, climbs the inaccessible slopes and forbidding pinnacles of mountains, modifies climates, and determines the history, character, and destiny of nations. Unobtrusive and patient, it has immortal vigor and aggression. Banished from the thoroughfare and the field, it bides its time to return, and when vigilance is relaxed, or the dynasty has perished, it silently resumes the throne from which it has been expelled, but which it never abdicates. It bears no blazonry or bloom to charm the senses with fragrance or splendor, but its homely hue is more enchanting than the lily or the rose. It yields no fruit in earth or air, and yet should its harvest fail for a single year, famine would depopulate the world.

The primary form of food is grass. Grass feeds the ox: the ox nourishes man: man dies and goes to grass again; and so the tide of life, with everlasting repetition, in continuous circles, moves endlessly on and upward, and in more senses than one, all flesh is grass.

The full moon rose as the talk was finished. It was a beautiful evening followed by a rainy day in which the ranch got a bit over 2 inches. What a blessing!

A very fine Field Guide to the Grasses of the Texas Hill Country by Brian and Shirley Loflin is available and we highly reccommend it. It features the most important grasses in our region, and has beautiful photographs, some of which were taken here at Selah.

There is a website available for a list, pictures, glossary and keys for the Grasses of Texas.

Photographs were taken recently unless indicated otherwise. All were taken by me, except one that I'm in was taken by J David. The illustration of the "Rain Machine" was drawn by me for the book about the ranch, "Water From Stone" by Jeffrey Greene and published by Texas A&M University Press in 2007.

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