Appreciating our glorious fall grasses

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, November 1, 2017

By Pat Drackett, Director, The Crosby Arboretum, MSU Extension Service

Over the past few weeks, you may have noticed there is an explosion of fall grasses in Pearl River County roadsides. Have you been passing a field or roadside freshly decorated with native grasses lately? Make a point to drink in the autumn light as it passes through the inflorescences. If you are lucky, they may even have an extra sparkle, if they are coated in morning dew.

On my drive to work each day, I enjoy seeing the variety of grasses unfurling, such as the emerging clusters of sugarcane plume grass (Saccharum giganteum), currently sporting fresh peachy-pink heads.

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Weeks later, once the inflorescences have aged, they will have a totally different appearance, turning fluffy and white. For now, however, they glisten in the sun. Passing stands of these grasses along the interstate, mixed with goldenrod and swamp sunflower, the vignettes are each like a separate Impressionistic painting, and provide a flash of exquisite beauty on the highway beeline.

Yes, the countryside is jam-packed with a wide range of these bolting, emerging grasses. One species that is incredibly striking is brushy bluestem (Andropogon glomeratus), because these clusters are so dense right before they unfurl. The grass is called “bluestem” because of the bluish-green hue of its summer foliage. Another common species of Andropogon is known as broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus). In the winter months, these grasses will develop a coppery color, and they make a particularly attractive sight if the stems become dusted with snow.

The native Andropogon grasses are excellent for controlling erosion, and are termed a “pioneer” species because they are among the first plants to appear on land that has been disturbed. Andropogon is found in moist to semi-moist sites, and its seeds are eaten by birds and small mammals. The grass is attractive to butterflies such as skippers and satyrs.

Tootache grass (Ctenium aromaticum) is an unusual grass found in coastal wet pine savannas, and we encounter this species here and there in the Arboretum’s Savanna Exhibit. It can be identified by its curved or spiraled inflorescences. As its name implies, chewing on the lower portions of the stems of this grass stems results in a numbing sensation to the mouth, and is believed to have provided welcome relief to early settlers when used for a toothache.

One late-season native stunner that makes a great addition to your garden is Muhly grass,    (Muhlenbergia capillaris) also known as Gulf muhly or hair grass. It has breathtakingly beautiful, feathery purple-pink spikes appearing in October. If you are planning a visit to the Mississippi State University campus in Starkville soon, stop by the Veterans Memorial Rose Garden on Highway 182 at the entrance to the R. Rodney Foil Plant Science Research Facility to see some gorgeous stands of this grass lining the pathways into the garden.

Look up an image on your favorite Internet search engine if you are not familiar with muhly grass, as it truly is a show-stopper. Use it in combination with flat-topped perennials such as black-eyed Susan and purple coneflower. Muhly grass is found in dry, sandy, and exposed sites, as well as in wet savannas and marshes, making it a good choice for a site with poor soils, or for the meadow or xeriscape garden. It is tolerant of salt spray and to deer browsing.

We have received many enthusiastic comments on the summer workshop with author Mary Beth Magee, “Bringing Nature to Life in Your Writing”. Mary Beth will offer another workshop on Saturday, November. 11, from 1 to 4 PM. The workshop includes a “plus” – an extra hour of free writing time with feedback available. Cost is $7 for non-members, and reservations are required.

Mark your calendars for the 15th Annual Piney Woods Heritage Festival on November 17 and 18. The event opens on Friday evening from 6:30 to 8:30 with several presentations at the Senior Center of South Pearl River County. Saturday’s festivities include exhibitors, music, and demonstrations from 10 AM to 3 PM. Friday’s opening events are free to the public and Saturday is the regular cost of site admission, $5 for adults, and $2 for children.

For more information, or to sign up for the Writing Workshop, call 601-799-2311. The Arboretum is located in Picayune, I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road and is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 AM to 5 PM.