By Stephen Janak, CEA – Ag/NR
As you travel the roads of Colorado County, what is it that you are looking at? Do you only have eyes on the road, driving carefully and staring at the white and yellow lines? Do you look at cars driving the opposite direction, and consider where that person may be going? Are you too busy texting, answering emails, or talking on the cell phone to even think about anything other than simply staying in your lane? Or are you like me – constantly scanning ditches, pastures, fields, yards, or parking lots for new or interesting plants or wildlife? If you ever do look beyond the paved surface, what do you see? Is it just a bunch of green that you loosely categorize as “weeds” and “brush,” or do you see something more?
As I travel the roads of our county, I admire farm fields full of this year’s harvest and I smile at green pastures and happy cows, but I often find the ditches to be the most interesting. Yes, the humble ditch is a treasure trove of diversity. They are small strips of refuge for many native grasses and forbs. As much of the land beyond the barbed-wire fence is converted to improved pasture, plowed for crops, or converted to cute St. Augustine grass yards, these indigenous plants flee to the only place that remains largely undisturbed: roadside ditches. Here, they can usually make a pretty good living; the disturbance regime closely mimics the historic patterns in which native plants thrived. Today, tractors and shredders take the place of bison and human error causes small roadside fires that take the place of lightning ignition or Native Americans, who understood that fire was essential to maintaining open prairies.
If you do happen to notice the greenery, do you perceive the value of it? These native plants help reduce erosion, slow floodwaters, and help rainfall infiltrate the soil where it can be stored for later use by plants or humans. Native plants are also more readily utilized by wildlife, who often do not eat the seeds of introduced plants. Additionally, diversity in the plant community leads to diverse and resilient wildlife populations. Unfortunately, introduced grasses such as King Ranch bluestem, Old World bluestem, Johnsongrass, and bermudagrass are continually invading these areas and reducing the size and number of these native refuges. Our natives – the plants that made this land so great when we first arrived – are under attack from every direction.
So now, as you drive across the county, what will you see, and what will be your perception of that which you see – simply mundane greenery, or the exciting abundance of unique plant life which has retreated and is now making its last stand, right underneath our noses. I, for one, shall choose to enjoy the latter.
From the side of Hwy 90, East of Columbus: bushy bluestem (foreground), yellow Indiangrass (left, background), hairawn muhly, knotroot bristlegrass, silver bluestem, and little bluestem.
A near-solid stand of Old World bluestem invades this roadside ditch.