Poaceae (Gramineae) (Grass Family)
Although grasses are flowering plants, the flowers are minute, and it is commonly difficult to identify the species, even with a hand lens. They are interesting
plants, however, and far too numerous and valuable to be ignored. Some are easy to recognize.
This is one of the largest plant families, and its usefulness surely exceeds all others. It supplies basic foods for the peoples of the world, as well as supporting their livestock. Both seeds and foliage are utilized by all levels of fauna. The value of native grasses cannot be overestimated. The White-Inyo Range has a generous share, but only a few of them are described here.
Stems of a grass plant are known as culms. The inflorescence is a spike or panicle, commonly called a head. The divisions are called spikelets, and they are composed of one or more florets. Leaves sheath the stems at the base, and the linear blades are parallel-veined. They may be tufted at the base or long enough to exceed the culms.
Festuca minutifloraRydb. Small-flowered Fescue.(Festuca brachyphylla schult) A densely tufted little alpine perennial, hardly more than 3/4 in (2 cm) high on the slopes of White Mountain Peak. There the culms barely exceed the leaves, and the spikelike particles may be no more than 5/8 in (1.5 cm) long. The leaves are rolled round and so fine that they resemble stiff threads. The plant is taller in more favorable places, perhaps up to 4–5 in (10–12 cm), with the culms exceeding the leaves, and panicles close to 1 in (2.5 cm) long.
Distribution. Open slopes of the high peaks; up to 14,100 ft (4,299 m).
Hilaria jamesii(Torr.) Benth. James' Galleta. A common perennial in the desert ranges, widely spreading from rhizomatous roots. It forms a distinctive groundcover of rather rigid but curly leaves. Culms are 6–16 in (15–40 cm) tall with spikes up to 2 in (5 cm) long. The spikelets are attractive, long-haired at the base, and fringed at the apex.
Distribution. Dryish flats and slopes; 5,000–7,500 ft (1,524–2,287 m). This hardy grass can take prolonged periods of drought. It is valued as a range species in desert mountains. Desert Bighorn may depend on it for 25% to 50% of their diet.
Koeleria macrantha(Ledeb.) Sprengl. Junegrass.(Koeleria cristata [L.] Pers., Koeleria nitida) (Plate 6.136) A common tufted perennial with culms 10–26 in (2.5–6.5 dm) tall. Leaves are mostly basal, usually folded or rolled inward. It resembles a Poa but can be distinguished by the finely but densely hairy axis of the spike and the membranous shining surface of the florets.
Distribution. Dryish slopes and flats; 7,000–13,000 ft (2,134–3,963 m). It is a good forage grass but too scattered to be of importance for grazing.
Leymus cinereus(Scribn. & Merr.) A. Love. Ashy Wildrye, Great Basin Wildrye. (Elymus cinereus Scribn. & Merr.) A stout perennial bunchgrass, often forming large clumps, with culms 2–6 ft (0.6–2 m) tall. Leaves are firm, flat, and well developed, and the stiff spikes are mostly 4–8 in (1–2 dm) long. The plant's finely hairy surface gives it a gray or ashy cast.
Distribution. Uncommon, usually an indication of a little extra moisture in depressions or gullies or on meadow borders; 4,000–10,000 ft (1,220–3,049 m).
Note: A similar species, L. triticoides (Buckl.), called Creeping Wildrye, is limited to riparian borders and sloughs where it is fairly wet. It is a brighter green and spreads by creeping rhizomes. Both of these coarse grasses are grazed to some extent when young. Their grains may be used as a food.
Melica strictaBoland. Nodding Melic, Rock Melic. A tufted perennial with culms 8–20 in (2–5 dm) tall. Panicles are 2–6 in (5–15 cm) long. Its distinguishing feature is the well-spaced, nodding spikelets, 1/2 in (1.5 cm) or more long, all on one side of the culm.
Distribution. Relatively common but never abundant; rocky places; 5,000–11,000 ft (1,524–3,354 m).
Muhlenbergia richardsonis(Trin.) Rydb. Mat Muhly. A mat-forming perennial from creeping rhizomes, its short culms mostly 4–10 in (10–25 cm) long, erect or sprawling. Leaf blades are very narrow, flat or rolled inward, 3/8–2 in (1–5 cm) long. Panicles are 1/2–1 1/2 in (1.5–4 cm) long, narrow and spikelike, green to blackish.
Distribution. Common on moist slopes and about meadows; 7,000–11,300 ft (2,134–3,445 m). It is a good soil binder and an important forage where it occurs in abundance.
Oryzopsis hymenoides(Roemer & Schultes) Ricker. Indian Ricegrass. (Plate 6.137) A densely tufted perennial with culms 8–24 in (2–6 dm) high. Leaf blades are very narrow and strongly rolled inward, nearly as long as the culms. The fine, threadlike branches of the panicle divide in pairs, delicately spreading. Spikelets are single-flowered, the florets with silky white hairs at the base.
Distribution. Common to abundant in dry, usually sandy places; 4,000–10,400 ft (1,220–3,171 m). This is an adaptable grass, and a very nutritious one. Its seeds were a staple food for the native American people.
Poa secundaPresl. Varied Bluegrass. (Poa ampla Merr., Poa gracillima Vasey, Poa incurva Scribn. & Williams, Poa nevadensis Vasey, Poa scabrella [Thurb.] Benth., Poa sandbergii Vasey) (Plate 6.138) A tufted perennial with culms 6–30 in (1.5–7.5 dm) tall. Leaves are mostly basal. The inflorescence is usually in spikelike panicles but some are more open with fine, spreading branches, some tinged purple. The poas or Varied Bluegrasses are common and are difficult to differentiate because morphologic differences are hard to define. A recent study has combined some of them, as evidenced by the list of synonyms, and placed them under a South American species. It allows for considerable variation within the species, many of which depend on elevation and local growing conditions. A distinctive characteristic of the genus is the way the tips of the leaves are shaped, like the prow of a boat. The spikelets of this species are not flattened or compressed.
Distribution. Moist to dryish slopes; 3,500–12,600 ft (1,067–3,841 m). Its dense tufts make it a good soil stabilizer and turf builder. Some poas are used in lawn mixtures. All of them are valuable forage plants and tolerate heavy grazing.
Sitanion hystrix(Nutt.) S.G. Smith. Squirreltail. (Plate 6.139) A tufted perennial with culms mostly 4–18 in (10–45 cm) high. Leaves are somewhat stiff and are well distributed on culms. Spikes are very broad with widely spreading, slender bristles — hence the common name. The stem of the spike (rachis) readily breaks apart when mature, allowing its segments to scatter and to penetrate anything within reach.
Distribution. Common throughout the range; 6,500–14,000 ft (1,982–4,268 m). This grass is attractive when young but becomes a nuisance late in the season. The pointed stems and rough bristles injure the mouths, eyes, and ears of grazing animals. Tule Elk feed on it when green, however.
Note: S. jubatum, Big Squirreltail, is very similar but has a larger, bushier spike. It is usually at lower elevations, up to 10,000 ft.
Sporobolus airoides(Torr.) Torr. Alkali Sacaton. (Plate 6.140) A stout perennial, an alkali-tolerant bunchgrass that may form broad, rounded clumps, densely clothed with the shining sheaths of old culms. Culms are slender, 16–40 in (4–10 dm) tall, with open pyramidal panicles 5–15 in (12–40 cm) long. The inflorescence is dainty. When observed in extensive populations, it appears as a beautiful purplish haze.
Distribution. Seepage places and areas of high groundwater; 3,500–7,000 ft (1,067–2,134 m). Early desert travelers considered this grass a reliable indicator of water sufficiently fresh to drink within a few feet of the surface; however, with present-day water demands, the depth may be greater. It is an important forage grass in alkaline areas. When Desert Bighorn Sheep are present, it is heavily used by them. Native peoples used the fine seeds for food.
Stipa comataTrin. & Rupr. Needle and Thread. A relatively stout, tufted perennial with culms 8–30 in (2–7.5 dm) tall. Leaves are mostly on the lower half of the plant. Panicles are 6–16 in (1.5–4 dm) long. The distinctive feature, unlike any other grass in the region, is the exceedingly long, flexuous bristles, 3–6 in (7–15 cm) long, of the inflorescence. When backlit by the sun, their shining forms are an impressive sight.
Distribution. Common to abundant on dryish slopes; 6,000–9,500 ft. This grass provides good forage before maturity. When mature, the sharp base of the grain can damage the mouth parts of grazing animals.
Stipa speciosaTrin. & Rupr. Desert Needlegrass. (Plate 6.141) A rather rigid, densely tufted perennial with culms 14–26 in (3.5–6.5 dm) high, scarcely exceeding the leaves. The spikelike panicles, 4–8 in (1–2 dm) long, are sometimes partially enclosed in the upper leaf sheath. The bristles of this species of Stipa are bent midway,
and the lower portion is twisted and densely hairy. After maturity, the erect tufts of this grass become conspicuous straw-colored accents on rocky slopes.
Distribution. Dry, rocky slopes; 3,500–8,000 ft (1,067–2,439 m). It is valuable as a forage, especially when young. It is relished by Bighorn Sheep and Tule Elk.