Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Purple Muhly Grass and Piedmont Prairies

One of my favorite native prairie grasses is purple muhly. It's common name comes from its latin name, Muhlenbergia capillaris. The species name, capillaris, comes in turn from the latin word for hair, referring to its fine texture. Each fall, these two specimens in my neighborhood turn into purple clouds. Though I've never seen purple muhly growing wild hereabouts, there are other native prairie grasses to be found along the gasline right of way and the towpath: switchgrass, Indian grass, little bluestem, broom sedge, and big bluestem.

The one place I've seen purple muhly growing in the wild is in Durham, North Carolina, in a little piedmont prairie remnant that I'm proud to say we just saved from development. A flurry of emails and some timely intervention by city council members spared the roadside prairie from being obliterated by a "sidewalk to nowhere". Convention requires that a sidewalk be built, whether pedestrians would have any occasion to use it or not, and the typical landscaping imposed is turfgrass. The result, in this case, would have been to destroy an ark that had carried more than 100 species of native wildflowers, grasses and shrubs safely from colonial or pre-colonial times to the present. The complex interaction of plants, soil and hydrology is distinct to that site, so moving the prairie was not an option.

The prairie remnants in Durham have some kinship with our Princeton Ridge, in that both are characterized by underlying diabase rocks from which their soil is derived. The soil has a distinct chemistry that in turn supports a distinct flora. Princeton is at the northernmost extent of the piedmont, which extends down through North Carolina and beyond.

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