Thursday, November 13, 2008

Backlit Bunch Grass

This is one of those topics where a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I worked in a geographic support position for a team of zoologists, botanists, and plant ecologists back in the late 1980s. I loved learning from them whenever I could, especially when I could talk my way onto a rare field trip with them into the natural areas of California. But I am without real authority on the topics, and am simply a lay-natural historian, if anything. In starting this post, I ended up on a hour-long internet browse that ultimately had me surprised to see a few familiar names on a current staff list of the old work unit. But I didn't come up with the factoid I was looking for.

I will assert that this is a photograph of some variety of California native bunchgrass. Europeans commonly call their own related natives "tussock" grass. I was looking for online verification of a vague belief I seem to carry in my brain, that native grasses now comprise only about ten percent of the wild grasses we see in California today, by volume. These natives are actually perennial plants with astonishingly deep roots and long lives. The annual grasses that dominate our hills and valleys are exotics from Mediterranean Europe, which originated with the Spanish conquest and their introduction of cattle ranching here hundreds of years ago.

The bunchgrasses I'm claiming you see here are sitting right in the bed of Baechtel Creek, southwest of Willits along Muir Mill Road, one of the many feeder streams in the Outlet Creek watershed. I photographed them before our most recent rains came, and this winter they will be periodically inundated well over their heads with rainstorm water. There was only a trickle of water wending its way through these tufts in October. Annual grasses don't do so well in such a cycle.

If you are a botanist passing by this page and can correct me on this identification, please leave a comment. I realize I'm using casual language, but that's what I do. It could be that the abundant plants here are the product of a restoration project.


Dina said...

All I know is that it is a lovely picture. Sure you had fun researching for this. Those grasses will be underwater? wow

Jerusalem finally had rain last night, but a measly 2 mm.

raf said...

Thanks for your very interesting post, Elaine, and I liked the dappled backlighting too. Lived in SF for years and miss those hikes up through the North Coast Range.

Anonymous said...

Wild grasses are something I have read about but they are not wild but native, in many cases, to this country. I remember not long ago reading about the grasslands and how hard it was to break ground and they only did that when the steel plow was created and animals strong enough to pull it. I read where those grasses, like Buffalo grass, came in two sizes and one was taller than a man on a horse.

I think these native grasses are the way to go and we are slowly replacing lawn grass that has to be mown with native grasses in clumps that look like a new landscape that requires zero maintenance.

Jane Hards Photography said...

This is facinating. I often come across grass that is definitely not native, but fail to find where it origintaed from. It's beautifully shot, you can feel a gentle breeze.

Kym said...

Here, we often have areas of bunch grass, usually on rocky hillsides. They usually hang together like herds of cattle.

Petrea Burchard said...

I can't help you with information. I sympathize with the long internet searches. One of the best things about blogging! I love it all - my research, yours, and the sharing of it.

Amy at Woza Books said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amy at Woza Books said...

This is one of the grasses the Pomo Natives use to make their exquisite and famous baskets. I thought for many years that they use the grass itself but I'm pretty sure that actually they dig up the roots and use the roots. At any rate, this and other hardy local grasses have helped the indigenous people of our region to preserve their culture and community. The baskets they made were valuable to European intruders who bought them, collected them, and put them in museums. One of the tribes in Lake County bought back acres of their native home lands from Europeans with money earned from selling these baskets--they still live on this land today. Check out more information about this and some of the baskets at the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah.

Saretta said...

Nice to see some grass. There basically isn't any around here!

Arvind said...

It is difficult to id grasses without a close look at their flowering parts. Still, here is a WAG: California Fescue (Festuca californica), likes shade and north-facing slopes. Long-lived, deep-rooted bunchgrass often found in the understory of trees like California buckeye. Great for erosion control. More photos at:

California has many other native bunchgrasses, though. For a more definitive id, visit the site in late winter/early spring and photograph the flowering stalk/panicle and post it.

Anonymous said...

I saw a Huell Howser "California Gold" program on the Grace Hudson Museum. Lots of drawings of Pomo Indians and...
I imagine this particular grass would fry under a Southern California sun. I'd like to purchase some native grasses to over take some of my "european invaders" but not my bougainvillea.

USelaine said...

Dina - I hope you get more rains soon. It's a feeling of security.

Raf - Thanks! My grandmother lived in San Francisco, and enjoyed hiking on Mt Tamalpias.

Abraham - I remember visiting a semi-wild prairie nature preserve in Iowa somewhere. I think the species are different than the natives on the Pacific coast. It was interesting to see. I'll bet your new plantings will bring you even more wildlife to photograph.

Babooshka - Thank you so much! I remember an American botanist talking about a trip to Wales he had just taken. When he looked at the familiar grasses, he realized they were not aliens there, and it was interesting to understand their place in their native habitat.

Kym - I was surprised to learn that the individual plants can live hundreds of years! I love the pictures you've taken of grasses by streamsides.

P - It's like following your nose in a vast university library, browsing the stacks. The problem is, I'll pick up little tidbits of information that stick with me, but I'll forget where I got them.

Amy - Thanks for that! I love the Grace Hudson Museum. The director, Sherri Smith-Ferri is a Pomo Indian. Perhaps we could visit there together some time. There are some great books too, such as "The Natural World of the California Indians" that give great details of the regional materials used. Worldwide ethnobotany is always so fascinating. I've read that the Pomo knew just the right time of year, and just how much of the plant materials they could collect without harming the plants. They used redbud roots too. And I think the Pinoleville Band of Pomo also purchased their own land there in Ukiah, if I recall correctly.

Saretta - I wonder what kinds of plants grow there instead?

chh - Thanks for the reference! I looked around the CalPhotos site, but decided I didn't have enough information to narrow it down yet. I'm usually a pretty good observer of detail, but the more I hung out with those botanists, the more I learned how similar two species could look to one another. Photographs are useful, but the botanists always relied on their bible-sized plant key to really differentiate. The online sources all mentioned "hillsides" as the bunchgrass habitat, but I kept hoping just one of them would mention "streambeds". No such luck. Thanks for posting the link. I hotlinked some of my text as well.

PA - Most of what the Grace Hudson Museum displays of her art are her oil paintings of Pomo children, but she did other subjects as well. There is now an elementary school named after her in Ukiah. As for grasses, they have become much more fashionable to use for gardeners wanting to consume less water. I think one of my text links leads to a dealer in native plants.

Thanks everyone, for your interest and wonderful additional information. My post was getting so long, I didn't really reference all the great information that's out there. Take care of your native species, wherever you are!

Susie of Arabia said...

This is such a beautiful photo, Elaine - doesn't matter what kind of grass it is - it's lovely!