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