Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Big Bluestem

This is the time of year for the tall grasses to flower. It’s not always easy to see these small flowers and many people walk by without giving them a glance. There’s got to be a flower in order to get a seed and the tall grasses are master seed producers. Flowering of the Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, is now at its peak at Blue Jay Barrens.

I’ve seen a steady increase in Big Bluestem over the past 25 years. When I first began managing the property, Big Bluestem was uncommon and at one point I even wondered if it might be lost from this area. It’s just been in the last five years that I’ve come to view Big Bluestem as a dominant grass in the Blue Jay Barrens landscape.

When you actively manage a property, you expect certain responses to your actions. You can have a general idea of what those responses will be, but it’s hard to predict specifics. I’m wondering if this explosion of Big Bluestem is directly related to my management activities or if it’s a natural next step in the evolution of the ecosystem that’s developing on this site.

In 1994 I began a serious program of clearing to bring sunlight to prairie openings that were in danger of being shaded by invading woody species. I cleared two to three acres each year for the next ten years. I’m puzzled by the fact that time of clearing didn’t seem to influence the rate of Big Bluestem appearance in the fields. If my clearing was the catalyst for an increase in Big Bluestem, the grass should have been found first in those earliest clearings. Instead, the increase occurred in all clearings at about the same time.

Big Bluestem has taken hold in the most bare of the barrens, areas that are not much more than crushed stone over bedrock. These areas are inhospitable enough that woody species never got a chance to grow to block the sunlight. They’ve been open for decades, so why is it just now that Big Bluestem has found them a suitable place to grow? I can make changes and set things on a new course, but this is an ecological system I’m working with and it has an inherent direction that it is trying to take. As a manager, about all I can do is remove obstacles that might hinder its progress and hope the result is something spectacular.

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