Adapted from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter of January 26, 2007
issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve,
QUERÉTARO, MÉXICO

RUBY GRASS

I retain lots of vivid memories from my first trip through Mexico back in the late 60s. Until the very day before my trip began I really had no plan for what I'd do here. However, the day before I left, the postman delivered a National Geographic magazine happening to feature Mexico's archeological ruins. The next day I set out with that edition's map of Mexico with all the major sites highlighted, planning to visit as many ruins as possible during my month of hitchhiking.

I still remember the esthetic effect created by a certain red-topped grass that nearly always grew atop the ruins. Atop pyramids nearly always there was a nice breeze and a feeling of being closer to the sun, and nothing captured the feeling of mingling wind and sunlight more than a particular grass whose deep burgundy flowers shook in the wind and seemed to explode with light. You can see that same grass in a picture taken here in Jalpan below:

MELINIS REPENS, Ruby Grass or Natal Grass

That's MELINIS REPENS, sometimes called Ruby Grass and Natal Grass. The plant's distinguishing features are that its individual florets are purple and abundantly hairy. It's the hair that catches sunlight, causing windblown inflorescences to be so spectacular when the sun shines from behind them.

I've always associated Ruby Grass with Mexican ruins but now I learn that it's an invasive species from southern Africa found worldwide in the tropics and a bit in the subtopics, especially in dry, disturbed areas. In US southern states usually it's confined to roadsides but in Mexico it's invaded natural grasslands, changing their species composition and structure. When Ruby Grass forms dense stands and catches fire, it burns so hot that native plants are killed, while Ruby Grass itself somehow comes back.

Well, this isn't the first times I've nurtured warm feelings for an acquaintance from way back, only to Google them and find out that they have been up to shady dealings elsewhere.