Eastern Gama Grass

When it comes to grasses and grains I am pretty much clueless even though I come from a long line of peasants — on both sides. When I was about eight years old my cousin tried to show me the difference between rye, wheat, oats and barley. The lesson mostly stuck but when it comes to all the wild grasses I… well … let’s just say, “they all kinda look alike to me.” ahem

Eastern Gama Grass is the Exception

Which shows just how impaired I am because nobody could miss noticing this plant. Three of them grow at Willowbrook Reach and each span at least 6 feet in diameter. The flower heads this summer towered to about 8 feet high. I really should have asked someone or a wandering giraffe to stand next to the plant to give a context for how BIG this plant is; unfortunately, it just looks like a clump of grass in the picture.

For years I kept wondering what this monster was but only recently did I take the time to actually identify it.

eastern gama grass2 sept 2014
Tripsacum dactyloides at Willowbrook Reach
eastern gamma grass leaf
Tripsacum dactyloides leaf

Now that I know what it is I feel awed and humbled each time I pass by. Much like looking at a reconstructed dinosaur skeleton I feel like I am glimpsing a remnant of a lost world. Eastern Gama Grass originally grew in the tall grass prairie ecosystem which is gone. Less than 1% remains in scattered bits making what is left more like museum pieces than a functioning system. Within that lost system Eastern Gama Grass preferred a special niche: moist lowlands and creek sides.

The first settlers called it the ice cream plant because cattle would go out of their way to gobble it all up. It quickly disappeared from most places due to poorly managed grazing pressure. It could survive bison pressure for centuries because those herds were always on the move giving the plant time to recover and grow between visits. It was and still is a preferred grain because it is extremely nutritious and great source of protein.

I feel small when I stand next to it. And I marvel. Look at how weird the flowers are. The girls are pink. The boys are golden and look a bit like rice flowers.

Tripsacum dactyloides male flowers
Tripsacum dactyloides male flowers
eastern gama grass female flowers1
Tripsacum dactyloides female flowers

In the next picture you can see green seed pod things developing on the right and mature seeds on the left. The seed pod things snap off with very little pressure. I read somewhere they can be popped like corn. Apparently, Tripsacum dactyloides is a distant relative of corn/maize.

Tripsacum dactyloides female flowers
Tripsacum dactyloides female flowers

Here’s a better example of the dried seed pod things.

Tripsacum dactyloides
Tripsacum dactyloides

Eastern Gama Grass provided important habitat for ground nesting birds like wild turkeys, sparrows, quail and others. The plant’s growth pattern leaves a kind of hollow in the centre making a nice place to build a nest and plenty of handy hiding spaces under the surrounding leaves.

Tripsacum dactyloides hollow
Tripsacum dactyloides hollow

Eastern Gama Grass is kind of undergoing a renaissance. People can easily obtain seed and a number of cultivars have been developed. On rangelenads, Eastern Gama Grass is being re-introduced as a native perennial alternative to annual warm season forage plants. It is also being used to stabilize creek and river banks and to edge agricultural fields to enhance filtration and stop runoff.

I really think I need to start paying more attention to our native grasses and grains. Maybe they aren’t as nondescript as I assumed.

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10 thoughts on “Eastern Gama Grass

  1. This is wonderful–exactly what I’ve wished for since I was a child: A companion in random—but close and loving, and respectful, sometimes awed—observation.
    Since I can remember; picking up acorns on the schoolyard at PS 20, knowing where all the clumps of violets and–what we called–money plant were, in the alley behind our house, to the marvels of moving to the country when I was 8, it has been a fairly haphazard enterprise in trying to name & know at least bits of the natural world. I felt grandly knowledgeable when I got the golden guide to wildflowers for those early wanders in the woods, but decades later I am reduced to just hoping I can collect a few scraps of comprehension before the time is up.
    Anyway–the clarity of the images, and your perspective, along with the facts & stories you’ve gathered, just seem like a lovely combination.
    Is there a way to sign up for email notification of new posts?
    Because I guess I’d signed up to follow—but though it may go to my ‘feed’, but I do not.
    Thank you,
    Cassandra ——-oop—there it is, below comments by email

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    1. Hi Cassandra. What kind things you have said. Thank you. I just love your blog … the images and ideas and everything. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship =)

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    1. =) Probably because they are unfamiliar though this was unfamiliar to me and pretty odd. When I see the plants and creatures from your side — especially the birds I get that same sense of exotic wonder.

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  2. Interesting that a tuft of grass can be hiding not only wildlife but also a history lesson. Thanks for sharing this one’s place in the system. I wonder if deer like this as much as grazing cattle do!?

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    1. My pleasure. It kind of looked like Johnson’s grass on steroids but I knew that since it had been left in the wildlife garden after we did the big Johnson grass purge that it couldn’t be a ‘weed’ so I started digging so to speak. I was surprised by what I learned. Deer do like to browse on it but as you know they will eat almost anything.

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