Tom's Blog

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Little bluestem in Massachusetts coastal areas

On a recent trip to Massachusetts I discovered that little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is quite common in their coastal areas. This was one of the most frequent roadside plants I saw (and I even saw a piece of roadside where it had been burned).

Coastal Massachusetts is quite sandy. In addition, there are lots of retired cranberry bogs where little bluestem has become well established. The photo above is a typical example.

These retired cranberry bogs are interesting, in that little bluestem seems to become established without any effort on the part of restorationists. Part of the standard agricultural practice here is to put down a layer of sand on top of the cranberries every three or four years. The crop grows up through the sand and sends out upright stems that flower and make fruits. By the time the production bogs are retired, there has been quite a bit of sand buildup. When the retired cranberry production bog is drained, plants are just allowed to recolonize. In the photo above the bog on the left had been retired quite a few years earlier.

In this area little bluestem grows in typical cespitose fashion, as the photo here shows. I knew from the USDA Plant Database that little bluestem could be found in almost all the 48 states, but I was not aware that it did so well on the east coast. In fact, restoration work in areas of coastal Massachusetts, such as Cape Cod, little bluestem is one of the species used in reseeding, then followed by prescribed burns. They don't seem to call these grassy areas "prairies".

The federal publication "Roadside Use of Native Plants" provides a species list for each state, and little bluestem is listed in every state except California, Oregon, Washington, and Nevada. Very few other species have such wide capabilities.

Of course, little bluestem can only compete well in relatively dry areas. In favorable soil with plentiful moisture, it gets out competed by other grasses or forbs.


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