Tag Archives: Poaceae

Sand Rice Grass

Stipa hymenoides

One of my favorite grasses of the Great Basin is the common and widespread sand rice grass (Stipa hymenoides). The rice grasses (or “ricegrasses”) were formerly treated in the genus Oryzopsis, which differed from the closely related needle grasses (Stipa spp.) in part by their short, generally straight and deciduous awns, rather than the mostly much longer, bent, and persistent awns of the needle grasses. Alas, Stipa and Oryzopsis were long known to hybridize promiscuously, and other morphological and developmental studies showed more similarities between the groups, so (to oversimplify the taxonomic story) Oryzopsis was lumped into Stipa. But in common parlance, the shorter-awned taxa are still “rice grasses” and the long-awned taxa are still “needle grasses”.

Stipa hymenoides

In late summer and fall, the seeds swell and push open the florets, making the plants catch the light especially well, so these bright little bunchgrasses can be seen easily from afar. The plants above, however, were right along the sandy edge of the Sweetwater-Aurora road (NF-028), west of The Elbow in Lyon County, in late September.

Stipa hymenoides

Rice grass seeds, especially those of Stipa hymenoides, are highly edible. Sand rice grass used to be called “Indian rice grass”, which is ethnologically and now also politically incorrect, but the name reflected the fact that the seeds were collected for food by Native Americans. Livestock and wildlife find the plants appealing too.

Stipa hymenoides

Sand rice grass is the official the State Grass of Utah and is planted for land reclamation, habitat improvement, and ornamental purposes. Let there be no confusion, however: “rice grass” is very different from true rice, which is also grass (Oryza spp.), but of tropical wetlands (and widely cultivated).

Stipa hymenoides

Stipa hymenoides, last October, at Lee Vining.

Copyright © Tim Messick 2016. All rights reserved.

The View from Hilaria Hill

Last month during a quick trip down the northeast side of the Bodie Hills along NF-028 (a.k.a. Ninemile Ranch Road), I turned onto NF-128 and drove a short distance up the low northern slope of the Bodie Hills.

Red Wash Creek(See Flickr for a panoramic version of this photo)

There has been some prospecting in this area, but not much mining, so there are few roads through the relatively undisturbed pinyon-juniper woodland and few names on the features in this landscape. The drainage on the left side of this view is Red Wash Creek (which is usually dry), but none of these hills have names. Let’s call the place where I’m standing “Hilaria Hill,” because . . .

Hilaria jamesiiHilaria jamesii

Walking around on this low hill, I quickly encountered Galetta (Hilaria jamesii), a native grass that inhabits much of the arid southwest. Here, less than a mile from the southern boundary of Lyon County, Nevada, we are on the very westernmost edge of the species’ range.

Tetradimia spinosaTetradimia spinosa

Other plants here include the viciously armed Shortspine horsebrush (Tetradimia spinosa), the lovely Desert globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) and the virtually leafless Nevada Mormon Tea (Ephedra nevadensis). There are lots more — I need to explore this place some more and go farther up the road. South of here there are some hydrothermally altered soils with Jeffrey pines that are disjunct from their primary range along the east side of the Sierra Nevada.

Sphaeralcea ambiguaSphaeralcea ambigua

Ephedra nevadensisEphedra nevadensis

Copyright © Tim Messick 2015. All rights reserved.