by Andrea Williams, Vegetation Ecologist
This is installment eight of a 12-part series on grasses. Read the previous installment here.
Life gets busy sometimes, and blog posts can seem a frivolous indulgence. But then things don’t match up right, and one feels further behind* than she should for not having gotten the semaphore grass (Pleuropogon) post out in time for International Talk Like a Pirate Day on September 19. “Why should that matter?” you might think (that, or, “You totally lost me”). Well, the genus name for this grass translates from the Greek as “Sidebeard” and I think that would make an excellent pirate name.
Like pirates, semaphore grasses are usually found near water; also, there are a lot fewer than there used to be. Marin County has two rare species, nodding (P. refractus) and North Coast (P. hooverianus), and the more common California (P. californicus) semaphore grass. Nodding semaphore grass has only been found in Marin on the Point Reyes peninsula, although suitable redwood riparian habitat exists for it elsewhere in the county, and it is relatively common in Humboldt and Del Norte counties. North Coast semaphore grass, state-listed as threatened, was once known from Ross, Lagunitas Meadows, and several spots along San Geronimo Creek; now, there is only one shrinking patch near the San Geronimo Treatment Plant. Sadly, most of Lagunitas Meadows was flooded when Bon Tempe Reservoir was built, and searches of that area have yielded no plants, so that population appears to have gone to its watery grave. California semaphore grass was also known from Ross, but can still be found in grassy wet meadows to the north and east in places such as Mt. Burdell and Hicks Valley.
Semaphore grasses’ distinctive arrangement of their spikelets led to their common name: The flowering stalk stands like a mast with the small flagging spikelets waving in the breeze. The three species we have can be told apart by how their flags are held—the semaphore’s message is up=californicus, out=hooverianus, down= refractus. Other differences help in telling these apart as well (since the flags can sometimes give mixed messages), such as habitat, and the rare species’ rhizomatous habit. But if you encounter a Sidebeard of any kind, thank yer lucky stars!
*At least I can translate the month and feel like I am still on track, since October (as I write this) is the “eighth” month.