Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

Purple Three-awn Grass, ARISTIDA PURPUREA

from the the September 23, 2012 Newsletter issued from the valley of the Dry Frio River in northern Uvalde County, southwestern Texas, on the southern border of the Edwards Plateau, USA

We're exactly where the Edwards Plateau with its hills and slopes of Cretaceous limestone meets the much younger gravels, sands, alluvium and other soft or loosely consolidated geologic materials of the Coastal Plain. The Edwards Plateau is a southern extension of the Great Plains with its grassy prairies. Therefore, we have interesting native grasses here, and I'm paying attention to them.

For example, on particularly dry limestone slopes where the Texas Live Oaks and Ashe Junipers grow far enough apart for plenty of sunlight to break through, often leg-high clumps of slender-stemmed grasses show up as shown above.

The Easterner might assume that this is one of the broomsedges, but a close look at the flowering heads dispels that notion. Broomsedges produce achene-type fruits equipped with white fuzz that helps the achenes disseminate in the wind. Our oak-juniper clumpgrass achenes are fuzzless, but from their tops arise three slender, stiff bristles that catch on animal fur for critter dissemination, and serve as crude parachutes for wind dissemination. The bristles are shown below:

Purple Three-awn Grass, ARISTIDA PURPUREA, bristles on achenes

This distinctive arrangement of three long, stiff bristles arising atop a slender achene tells us that we have a three-awn grass, a member of the genus Aristida. About 300 Aristida species are recognized worldwide, mostly growing in arid, warm regions like here; about 19 Aristida species are listed for Texas. The species in our picture seems to be the three-awn grass most typical for openings in forests of Texas Live Oak and Ashe Juniper, ARISTIDA PURPUREA, often known as Purple Three-awn Grass. It's found on dry, rocky soils on the Great Plains from Utah, Colorado and Kansas south through our area into northern Mexico.

Back when vast herds of buffalo roamed the American prairies this was one of the medium-size grasses they might have munched on if the herd wandered into dry, rocky spots. However, for grass eating herbivores Purple Three-awn Grass isn't a particularly palatable species, since its nutrient value isn't as good as some other species, plus, when the grass is fruiting, those long bristles stick in a grazer's throat and can cause sores in the stomach.

Still, small birds such as juncos eat the seeds, plus the grass produces a large network of fine roots, so an important service Purple Three-awn Grass provides for our rocky slopes is to hold the soil in place, which greatly benefits the whole ecosystem.

from the April 28, 2013 Newsletter issued from the Frio Canyon Nature Education Center in northern Uvalde County, southwestern Texas, on the southern border of the Edwards Plateau, USA

This week the weather in our area has been warm enough but mostly overcast and with only one little shower that hardly settled the dust. In the resulting subdued light the Dry Frio Valley looked somber, but pretty, with a patchwork of soft greens emerging. Also, here and there on the grassy valley floor there were eye-pleasing patches of diffuse purple, as shown up front below:

Purple Three-awn Grass, ARISTIDA PURPUREA, forming purple patch in spring field

Up close, clumps of this purple-topped grass are composed of many wispy stems with modest blades mostly clustered at stem bases, as shown below:

Purple Three-awn Grass, ARISTIDA PURPUREA, clump

Closer still, the grass's purplish, unusually narrow individual flowers --or "florets" in grass terminology -- are seen to bear very long, slender, stiff, needlelike bristles, or "awns," which you can see below:

Purple Three-awn Grass, ARISTIDA PURPUREA, flowers showing awns

And much closer yet, each flower reveals itself as bearing three awns, shown below:

Purple Three-awn Grass, ARISTIDA PURPUREA, floret

Until I saw the three awns shown in the last picture, I had no idea who the grass was causing the purple patches, but seeing those awns suddenly it occurred to me that we've already examined this species. Last September we looked at Purple Three-awn Grass, Aristida purpurea, and that's what we have again. Except that last September the grass was dry and straw-colored, and the awns atop the grass's matured grains stuck out at right angles to the grains, giving the fruiting heads a spiky look, as shown in our photo at the top of this page.

What a thing that a grass looking so peaceful and harmonious with the spring landscape can in the fall take on such an aggressive, skinhead-like look. And isn't it nice that by noticing the basic structure of things, true identities are discovered, no matter what the cosmetics or seasonal context?