(How to Identify Native Grasses like a Pro on Your First Trip to a WPA)
There's a lot more to grasslands than just a sea of green below your knees! In the spring and summer, grasses shoot up intricate, architectural delights in the form of their seed heads. In the fall, the vibrant green prairie gives way to a rich palette of red, gold, and purple as the grasses, just like trees, take on their fall colors. Get hooked on learning to identify various species of grasses by their assorted seed heads and colors and suddenly you'll be seeing prairie in a whole new way!
Big bluestem is named because of its large size and bluish color. The seed heads frequently branch into three parts resembling a turkey's foot, and thus the grass nickname, "turkey foot".
Western wheatgrass is the State Grass of South Dakota and can be found throughout the District, becoming increasingly abundant westward. In your WPA wanderings, if you find a grass with a wheat-like seed head, look at the leaves to determine if it is western wheatgrass. The leaves have a distinct blue-green color, are strongly ribbed, and feel rough if you run your fingers along them.
Blue grama is the most abundant grass on the short-grass prairie, but is also abundant on drier upland sites in the mixed-grass prairie, such as those you can find on Harter WPA. It's short (no more than 16 inches tall), but most distinctive is the curved seed head, which resembles an eyebrow or eyelashes.
Switchgrass is tall, often attaining heights of 5 feet, with a robust seed head. The purplish cast, combined with the open, diffuse shape of the seed head, gives switchgrass tops an appearance like that of a fireworks burst.
Green needlegrass gets its name from its long, slender seed head comprised of many seeds shaped like long, slender needles. But perhaps the most diagnostic characteristic of green needlegrass is the grass blades themselves, which grow in a clump, are a vivid green, and are distinctly shiny. Even without a seed head, you can identify green needlegrass by that distinct, shiny leaf.
Unlike most grasses, little bluestem does not have the lone seed head perched loftily atop its stem, surrounded by shorter leaves. Instead, when little bluestem is mature, it has fuzzy, fluffy white little spikelets that tuft out from the stem all the way up. In addition, it grows in compact little clumps of foliage that turn conspicuously red at maturity.
The Lakota name for Indiangrass translates to "red grass with fluffy, light-colored end". Indiangrass is a tallgrass prairie species with dense, lance-shaped seed heads. When you see a tall grass with such a seed head, you'll recognize it as Indiangrass by the distinctly golden-yellowish color of the seed head.