I used to imagine that, before the Europeans settled here, the Mid-Atlantic region was continuous forest land interrupted only by a network of trails used by wild game and Native Americans. Now I know there were also extensive prairies. Rockslides, fires, dry lake beds left by melted glaciers, and devastating storms left big areas of open lands. Herds of bison and elk — large grazing animals now associated only with the American West — roamed these eastern prairies. Native Americans valued the prairies as prime hunting grounds, even managing them using fire.
Years ago the highway department scraped and graded a steep bank along the road past our property. In order to prevent erosion and to enhance the area as wildlife habitat, we seeded the bare clay soil with a mixture of native perennial plants and warm season grasses. Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) are both useful and dramatically beautiful native grasses.
By the end of summer, our big bluestem clumps have grown about seven feet tall. Along the woody, bluish green stalks, the leaves curl back gracefully, occasionally turning deep maroon or purple. The tops fork into three or four sections like the toes of a bird, hence the nickname, “turkey-foot.” As they mature, their silvery-purple tops take on both the shape and the color of turkey feet.
I love grasses and long ago I picked Indian grass as my subjective favorite. Many grasses are elegant or handsome, but in early September Indian grass is truly magnificent. Its graceful, dignified plumes stretch far above its top-most leaves, looking like flags. They are soft, glossy and a beautiful shade of golden-amber at first bloom, with delicately hanging purple, yellow and pale pink fragile flowering parts. As fall progresses and its seeds mature, Indian grass turns a bronzy-chestnut brown. This distinctive color stays well into winter before finally fading to gray.
“Warm season” and “cool season” refers to the growing cycle of grasses. Most grasses that farmers plant for hay, such as timothy, orchard grass, and fescue, are annual “cool season” grasses. They grow and mature early and quickly to provide successive crops for late spring and early summer haying. Most native prairie grasses grow too slowly for commercial value as hay. They’re perennial and don’t mature until early fall, at the end of the “warm season.”
Farmers find warm season grasses useful in certain pasture lands. Tall and tough, native prairie grasses are naturally adapted for grazing animals. Their perennial root systems are sturdy and the leaves provide good nutrition. Their large clumps thrive in various soil types and once established, persist for many years, also providing both food and habitat for wildlife.
Landscapers use both big bluestem and Indian grass in decorative mass plantings and wildflower meadows. Both species stay out of sight in short clumps for most of the summer, and then dramatically shoot up and burst into bloom in the fall. And what a show they make!
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown.By Doug Pifer