Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the June 12, 2005 Newsletter issued from the Sierra Nevada foothills somewhat east of Placerville, California, USA

If you looked at the picture of Buck in his old Model AA Ford a couple of weeks back, you saw how vividly green the slopes were. Now the herbaceous layer of the same slopes are mostly dun colored, just a few pale blotches of green here and there, only with the deep-rooted trees remaining green.

In a way that's a bit surprising because the very hot, dry season typical for this time of year hasn't materialized. Even this week it was amazingly chilly here (39° Tuesday morning) and on Wednesday it rained the whole day. So why are the herbs dying back?

The main reason is that the herbaceous layer is populated mostly by species that flower and fruit very fast in early spring, then by the time the dry season is supposed to begin, they die, rain or not.

The most conspicuous element of the herbaceous layer is the grasses. Among them are easy-to-recognize fescues, brome grasses, ryes and barleys, but usually the species are different from the ones I know.

On the slope right outside my trailer grow fast- fruiting-and-dying annual grasses such as the foot- tall, slender-spiked Rat-tail Fescue VULPIA MYUROS (http://www.hlasek.com/vulpia_myuros_4992.html), a yard-high barley, HORDEUM MURINUM, with a dense spike composed of flowers with very long needles (http://www.bio.bg.ac.yu/herbar/084.html) and a yard-high brome grass with the quaint name of Ripgut Grass, BROMUS DIANDRUS, and with very large flowers (http://www.sci.sdsu.edu/plants/sdpls/plants/Bromus_diandrus.htm).

For me the most striking and curious grass is one of the Goatgrasses, AEGILOPS GENICULATA, which is weird only if you're familiar with usual grass-flower anatomy. You can see the curious flowers at http://www2.ocn.ne.jp/~pgpinst/Komugi/Aegphoto/ovata2.jpg.

All these grasses deserve the name Ripgut Grass. They are all invasive from Eurasia, and all with flowers equipped with long, sharp needles, or "awns," and all the awns bear tiny, backward-pointing serrations assuring that if a flowering head gets into an animal's mouth it'll be hard to spit out and possibly dangerous to digest. It also means that if you walk through these grasses with socks on the fruits stick into your socks and if the fruits aren't picked out individually they'll just keep working through the sock, gouging and poking into your skin until you DO pick them out!