Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli on Flickr

Grasses in the Northeast

Lauren Brown and Ted Elliman

In the countryside of the Northeastern United States, many of us take great pleasure in the sight of open meadows—shimmering waves of green, lavender, and gray that evoke nostalgic images of our agricultural past and provide space and sky in our otherwise forested northeastern landscape. Often these meadows serve an economic purpose, maintained by farmers to grow hay for their livestock, but sometimes they are maintained by towns and conservation organizations for their beauty, their biological diversity, and their link to the past.

The meadow may contain various species of grass—orchard grass, timothy, velvet grass, and redtop, among others—and as much as these meadows may seem to be a symbol of “nature,” none of these grass species is native to North America. They were brought over several centuries ago by the early European settlers to be planted as forage for their livestock, the keeping and fencing of which became one of many causes of the downward spiral in relations between the settlers and the natives. The grasses were so well suited to our climate and soils that they escaped the confines of cultivation and now grow freely along roadsides.

Similarly, the grasses that make up our ubiquitous lawns are not native. The most commonly used lawn grass is Kentucky bluegrass. It does not come from Kentucky, but also was brought here by the early settlers for forage. Ditto the fescues and the quick-growing rye grasses.

There are over 300 species of grasses in the Northeast. Are all of them non-native? Certainly not. In the spring, when the lawn and meadow grasses are growing most vigorously, native grasses are flowering too, but most of these are small and grow in the woods, so you are less likely to see them. In the late summer and early fall, however, you can see native species in their glory along roadsides and in dry meadows. A species named purple love grass gives the first hint of the turn of the season when it seems to appear out of nowhere in low purple clouds along the roads or in sandy soil. Switch grass, a species dominant in the Midwestern prairies, forms bushy golden clumps along dry roadsides, while little bluestem, another prairie species, takes center stage in dry meadows, growing in straight lines of bronze and tan. A similar species, broomsedge bluestem, forms scraggly bunches in places too inhospitable for many other species, places such as power line rights-of-way, rocky outcrops, or even railroad tracks. Another native, more common to the south, is purple top, a tall gangly plant with delicate open clusters of dangling purple flowers.

Native or non-native, grasses are infinitely variable and have a subtle beauty. In this time of Covid, wandering around to take a look at them is a perfect activity; you’ll be outside, maybe without companions, and you’ll find them everywhere. Even if you can’t attach names to them, just enjoy the abundance and diversity of these common but often overlooked plants.

Lauren Brown is a botanist whose previous books include Grasses: An Identification GuideWeeds in Winter, and GrasslandsTed Elliman worked for many years for Native Plant Trust (formerly New England Wildflower Society) and is the author of Wildflowers of New England.

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