Bluestem

broomsedge
View larger size here.

“Broomsedge bluestem’s primary mode of reproduction is sexual” (see here). That’s one thing I like about plants: they’re not completely dependent on sex to make more of themselves. Which is good, because sex for plants usually involves the intercession of a third party — a moth, a hummingbird, an extinct ground sloth, you name it. Sounds chancy.

In any case, botany geek-talk is cool. “Sessile spikelet 3-4 mm long, twice to half again as long as the internode, the awn straight, 10-15 mm long; pedicellate spikelet wanting or rarely present as a minute scale, pedicel exceeding the sessile spikelet. Flowers: Either sessile and hermaphrodite, or stalked and staminate, sterile or not developed.”

Broomsedge bluestem (Andropogon virginicus L.), also known as whisky grass or yellow bluestem, is slowly spreading through our old fields. The photo above was taken at what we call the Far Field, which was never planted to non-native brome and orchard grass the way the First Field was. I love the stuff, especially at this time of year when its far-from-blue stems and leaves stand out against the snow. Its flame-colored foliage seems appropriate for a plant that flourishes after fires, and thus has evolved to provide a nice, dry tinder. Absent fires, it’s also an early colonizer of overgrazed pastures, old strip mines, and old fields like ours, especially on acidic soils. It’s slowly infiltrating the non-native grasses in First Field, relying on chemical warfare (allelopathogens), but has a harder time competing with the native goldenrod. At the Far Field, it’s restricted almost entirely to the mowed paths; the rest of the five-acre field is dominated by goldenrod…

goldenrod stem stripes

which looks like this right now (speaking of blue stems). We may have as many as eight different species of goldenrod on the mountain.

This kind of old field habitat is becoming increasingly scarce, so we think it’s important to keep it open. Dad used to use a tractor and mower, but in recent years he’s switched to using hand pruners on the encroaching black locust sprouts. It’s good winter exercise, he says.

The goldenrod provides, among other things, a valuable nectar source for migrating monarch butterflies, which come south along the ridge in great numbers each fall. Plus, this is a northeast-facing hollow. For our own psychological health, especially in the cold, dark months of the year, we appreciate all the extra light a field provides.

To tell the truth, though, it’s very difficult to say whether the value to conservation of maintaining old field habitat is greater than the value of forest interior habitat, which is becoming just as scarce here in the crowded northeast. If we were to let our 45-acre First Field grow in, and/or plant native trees to accelerate the succession, we’d create a parcel of virtually uninterrupted forest close to a mile wide. Numerous studies document how the nesting success of forest interior-dependent songbirds, for example, improves dramatically with distance from the nearest forest edge. But are wood thrushes more important than monarch butterflies? Probably if you’d ask ten different ecologists, you’d get ten different answers. I hate that we even have to make these kinds of choices, playing God.

sledding hill

All over the planet, we are rapidly approaching a point of no return, and not just where climate change is concerned. The loss of biodiversity and the radical simplification of ecosytems are epiphenomena of equal importance to our long-term survival. A world of simplied ecosystems is one with far fewer feedback loops, fewer checks and balances, and therefore greater extremes. Extremes of heat and cold. More catastrophic floods and droughts. Plagues and outbreaks of all kinds. More frequent and hotter fires, many of them fueled by invasive species — as broomsedge bluestem has become in fire-prone Australia. Forests giving way to savannas, and savannas to desert.

snow surf

But there will be a lot more light. Our descendents will learn to love this shining, depauperate world. They will see God’s stark handiwork at every turn.

12 Comments


  1. This is a gorgeous post.

    It reminds me of a science fiction novel I read and loved recently — Molly Gloss’ The Dazzle of Day — though you’d have to read the whole book before the mental leap I’m making between the book and this post becomes clear. :-)

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  2. I love the blue stem shadows, and this wandering essay that lights here and there but has teeth.

    My grandmother and the woman who came to help her with the house and nine children, Rilla or “Riller,” used to make broom straw brooms. The brooms were propped up in pantries and on porches. Something about their beautiful, simple shapes: they made us want to sweep.

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  3. Snow can be so blue. It makes wonder why blue and snow aren’t associated much (you know, “snow blue,” for instance).

    Thanks for enriching my vocabulary with “depauperate.”

    Very sobering post. I don’t know much about the subject, but it seems like a great summary of what we face as a planet.

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  4. Rachel – Thanks. Esperanto-speaking, interstellar Quakers, though – yikes!

    marly – I’m glad the wandering style wasn’t a turn-off.

    I hadn’t thought about whether the common name “broomsedge” indicates that the plant has been used for making brooms, but I don’t see why it couldn’t be.

    I actually sort of enjoy sweeping, though I don’t usually remember to do so until the dirt is pretty obvious.

    Peter – Well, of course you only get blue shadows with strong sunlight, and sometimes the sun doesn’t put in too many appearances during the winter, depending on where on lives. So such associations aren’t going to be nearly as common as whiteness and purity (“pure as the driven snow”).

    “Depauperate” means almost exactly the same as “impoverished.” It’s ecological jargon, really. I thought about using “impoverished” there, but I just don’t like the sound of the word as well.

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  5. Our descendents will learn to love this shining, depauperate world.

    Yes, that’s just what I’m afraid of. In fact, I think we’re about 90 percent of the way to that state of mind. Having attended the occasional forest or parkland planning meeting over the years, it’s quite clear that most people don’t see the value of old fields, scrub, or wetlands. Most do seem to “get” forests, but think that a planting a narrow strip of pine trees covers all the bases. Likewise, the same gang seem to be under the mass delusion that a storm water reservoir is the same thing as a pond. Well, I guess so, if you like your ponds full of lawn fertilizer, and other run-off from lawns, streets and parking lots. Few understand anything about forest interiors or the importance of wildlife corridors and contiguous habitat. I’m at the point that, if I hear, “It’s only an old swamp!” one more time — spoken as justification for turning a wetland area into a housing development — I’ll probably scream. Just sign me — Ol’ Curmugeon.

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  6. By the way, I got so carried away with that little rant that I forgot to say that this was a very nice piece. (-:

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  7. Thanks for the rant, Bev – my feelings exactly. The attitude of many (most?) professional land managers is particularly galling to me, because these are the people who should know better. Or at least admit how little they – and we – do know about so many fundamental processes. But unfortunately they aren’t being paid to do nothing, so they continually dream up new “projects” and “treatments.”

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  8. I have once described myself as sessile. Love that word, which is a sort of past participle of sedentary. My only knack for Latin was a love of the vocabulary. Glabrous, squamous, inguinal, so many descriptors of things bodily, yet out of bounds when one wishes to be understood. Dick Jones recently posted a poem, which I think you Smorgasblogged, featuring both “spatulate” and “buboes”. My heart saltated!

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  9. An amazing post, with wonderful pictures. Perfect for a cold winter’s Saturday.

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  10. Bill – Great comment! Guess I’ll have to look up squamous and inguinal now. Let’s see…

    Squamous, scaly; covered with scales.”

    inguinal — Pertaining to or in the region of the groin.”

    twitches – Glad you liked it. Thanks for stopping by.

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  11. It might have been G. Harry Stine who commented “we are as gods — we might as well get good at it”. Unfortunately, there are too many folks who can’t give up their delusions of omnicompetence….

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  12. Do you have anyone in particular in mind?

    Oh hell, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, isn’t it!

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