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IDENTIFYING NATIVE WARM SEASON GRASSES

 

To the novice, identifying native warm season grasses can present some challenges. Typically identifying mature plants with seed heads is relatively easy; one needs only to compare it with drawings or photographs of the individual plants. Plants, before the emergence of a seed head are a little more of a challenge but can be easily identified by some specific characteristics. Seedling native warm season grass plants, however, can provide a real challenge for even the most experienced. Only after identifying seedlings a number of times do you develop the ability to be confident with your seedling identification. Since mature plants with seed heads are easily identified I will be concentrating mostly on identifying grass plants before seed head emergence.
The easiest and most fool proof way to ID seedlings is by the seed. Of course you will need to know how to identify seeds for this to work. I suggest, before planting, you learn which seeds are which, it could prove very useful in evaluating the success of your planting. To ID seedlings

by this method carefully dig up the suspect grass seedling, taking care to leave the root structure in tact. A seed retains it's form and position in the ground through the seedling's early growth stages. Big bluestem, indiangrass, little bluestem and sideoats grama all have unique enough seeds that it will be difficult to get them confused with any other grasses which may be germinating in your stand. Switchgrass is different though. Switchgrass seeds look similar to foxtail seeds, particularly when dug from the soil. The identifying characteristic is that foxtail seed is flat on one side. Imagine it to be like a turtle shell, rounded on one side and flat on the other. The switchgrass seed will be somewhat flattened but not as flat as the foxtail. Next time you get a chance, compare the two and you'll see what I mean.

While we're talking about switchgrass let's discuss how to identify the plant. The plant is typically dark green. The leaf blade is flat, 1/4 to 1/2 inch wide with some varieties or local genotypes near 3/4 inch. The leaf sheath is rounded and smooth. The ligule is a dense clump of hairs and may extend onto the upper surface of the leaf blade. The identifying characteristic is the tuft of hairs at the ligule.

Big bluestem has a nearly oval sheath but can be rounded. The sheath is often purplish at it's base and hairy. The plant is usually lighter green in color than switchgrass but fertility can vary the shade. The leaf blade is flat and long and 1/4 inch wide, giving it a much "finer" appearance than switchgrass or indiangrass. The leaf blade is also covered with small silky hairs, widely dispersed on the upper surface. The ligule is small and membranous. The identifying characteristic is the fine hairs on the leaf surface.

Indiangrass plants are blue-green, particularly when compared to either switchgrass or big bluestem. The sheath is rounded, but can be somewhat flattened, usually not nearly as oval as big bluestem. The leaf blade is flat, smooth, 3/8 to 1/2 of an inch wide, narrow at the base and long, occasionally hairy. Indiangrass has a prominent, papery, ligule which is notched. It is often referred to as a rifle sight. The "rifle sight" ligule is the identifying characteristic. The ligule and color can be used to differentiate between switchgrass and big bluestem, when the plant exhibits characteristics similar to either.

The sheath of little bluestem is flattened and open, meaning it does not come together around the stem. It is often purplish at the base, similar to big bluestem. Little bluestem is very fine leafed. The leaves are 1/8 to 1/4 inch wide. Little bluestem plants are shorter than indiangrass, big bluestem and switchgrass, and appear bluish green, similar in color to indiangrass. The ligule is small and membranous. The identifying characteristics are the small ligule and flattened sheath.

Upon casual observation sideoats grama looks very similar to little bluestem, it is short and fine leafed, many times blue-green in color. The sheath is round and blade 1/8 inch wide. Sideoats grama has hairs protruding from bumps on the leaf margins, which is it's identifying characteristic.

Evaluating a stand the first year is the most difficult job of the whole process of establishing native warm season grasses. Most of us are used to the germination of annual crops or some cool season grasses and in comparison, native warm season grasses don't perform as well. If you'll get past the expectation of immediate results though and understand that native grasses can take 2 to 3 years to become established, you can be more patient with the establishment.

Native warm season grass seedlings are sometimes difficult to find in a new planting. Most of you have probably heard before, native grasses spend their first year growing down, not up. Since the new seedlings are so small and typically don't exhibit all of the characteristics outlined you will be faced with a real challenge.

Very seldom can you evaluate a stand from the road and many times not even standing in the field. Get down on your hands and knees, part the competing grasses and look for small, spindly grass plants. Look for seedlings that don't look similar to the majority of those present. If you drilled your stand look for seedlings in a drill row but don't be fooled by foxtail or other grasses sprouted in the drill row. If possible identify seedlings by their attached seed. If not, look for some of the characteristics mentioned, but realize that those characteristics may not have yet developed in the seedlings. It is impossible to examine the ligule of a 1 inch tall grass seedling.

If you don't find seedlings, don't be discouraged, chances are that you just missed them. Unless there were some specific circumstances during seeding or following planting there are plants there. (1. Planting too deep or harrowing after planting, which puts the seed too deep. 2. A gully washer of a rain soon after planting. 3. Herbicide carryover, which is usually spotty over the field.) I have seen many plantings where I wasn't able to find seedlings but when I saw it that fall or the next year there were plants everywhere. Be patient.

If you can find seedlings, great! You are well on your way to a productive native grass stand. As few as 1 plant per square foot is a great stand and in many cases 1 plant per square yard is adequate. Be patient and over time your stand will develop into the stand you imagined.