SciSun: The South has Risen. Again.   Leave a comment

It’s (almost) Spring! When flowers are in bloom; birds busy themselves seeking out the best nest materials; groundhogs emerge from their dens (not because they do or do not see their shadow but because they’re hungry); and it’s neither too hot nor too cold to enjoy carefree days of picnicking, walks in the country; and enjoying lively green plants rustling in a gentle wind. But just when you thought it was safe to go outside, yet another ecological intruder raises its trespassing head: The invasive ‘superweed’ Johnsongrass (Sorghum halapense) – but cleverly disguised as a harmless, and to many observers, welcome and hearty ornamental plant.

Humans generally have a love/hate relationship with grass. Some types – like the luxurious Bluegrass (a favored type for lawns, even though it’s not really blue); thick Fescue (often used for playing fields and other well-used areas); and Bermuda (you don’t have to live in the tropics to enjoy this variety!) are sought out by park planners, landscapers, and homeowners who will, inevitably, yell at kids to get off their grass. But other types of turf: Zoysia, unwelcome for lawns due to it’s prickly feel; and Crabgrass, a generic name for many types of uneven, clumpy, quickly spreading grass (which even crabs themselves don’t particularly like), are despised by most acreage activists and considered unwelcome or even ripped out of the ground as that most unwelcome of all plant types, the lowly ‘weed’. (Although by researching native plants in your area, many ‘weeds’ are actually valuable – but maybe not pretty – important parts of the natural ecosystem).

Fallstaff, as a representative of AGHH! (Associated Goat and Herbivore Hotline), knows Johnsongrass could make him sick. That's why he eats a balanced diet of weeds, bark, and shrubs.

Fallstaff, as a representative of AGHH! (Associated Goat and Herbivore Hotline), knows Johnsongrass could make him sick. That’s why he eats a balanced diet of weeds, bark, and shrubs.

Still, humans seem to like ‘nice’ grasses, particularly those that show unique features such as a tall profile or unusual seed stalks; that gently sway in a breeze; or with varying shades of green that can be highlighted in a landscape as ‘specimen’, ‘border’ or ‘foundation’ examples. And in its clever plan to invade our yards and parks, Johnsongrass fits many of these qualities. Along with, unfortunately, the ability to quickly out-compete native grasses and plants; crowd out cultivated plants in agricultural fields; and even produce toxins that poison livestock who eat the grass. Of course Johnsongrass itself isn’t purposely undertaking the invasion of our lands on its own; as a species out-of-place, the plant is well-adapted to its native environment among fields, forest edges and streambanks of the Mediterranean, half a world away from North America; but as an introduced species, the plant becomes a formidable competitor which can unbalance entire ecosystems.

Maybe the real origin of this invasion is the man who’s credited with naming – and encouraging the spread of Johnsongrass – Colonel William Johnson. About a decade before the Civil War (‘War Between the States’; or, for Col. Johnson and other Southerners, the ‘War of Northern Aggression’), Johnson brought seeds of the newly-introduced plant back to his Alabama plantation to stabilize the loose soils around riverbanks. Being a fine Southern gentleman, the good Colonel distributed seeds of the grass to his friends and neighbors, recommending the plant as a fine example of the variety of ‘useful and ornamental’ plants produced by the Southern states. While some sources claim the grass had already begun to establish itself in other areas of the US as early as the 1840’s, it’s curious that Col. Johnson, by 1860 too old to serve in the Army yet with a distinguished record during the War of 1812, chose to inspire the proliferation of a plant that flourished in the South, and in many ways was at the time viewed as a symbol of Southern prosperity. Today the battles of that terrible time may be over; but the war against an invader continues on.


Michonne Says: I’ve seen all types of grass and I don’t think any of them were named Johnson. But I never really thought about it. Besides I don’t have much use for any plants that don’t have flowers or berries.

Posted April 17, 2016 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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