Forgotten Grasslands of the South

John Hoffman & Reed Noss
John Hoffman (L) visits with Reed Noss (R), an ecologist who has studied southern grasslands.

Imagine wooly mammoths grazing on fields of grasses. You might picture them munching on Great Plains prairie grasses. But, as we recently found out, those mammoths might just as easily have foraged in southern grasslands.

Last month Hoffman Nursery partnered with the North Carolina Botanical Garden to host a talk by Reed Noss, an ecologist from the University of South Florida. Noss has spent years studying southern grasslands and published his discoveries in his new book, Forgotten Grasslands of the South.

We were thrilled to see remnants of these forgotten grasslands when we joined Noss and a diverse group of researchers and conservationists on a hike to Penny’s Bend. This nature preserve lies along the Eno River and is adjacent to land protected by the NC Plant Conservation Program. The trek was led by Johnny Randall, Director of Conservation Programs at the NC Botanical Garden. Between Randall and Alan Weakley, Curator of the UNC-Chapel Hill Herbarium, we had a tremendous storehouse of knowledge about this special site at our disposal.

Clematis ochroleuca
Clematis ochroleuca, called Curlyhead, emerged after the area was burned.

Several areas had been burned recently to stimulate fire-responsive plant species and maintain grassland ecology. To our delight, we spied emerging leaves of the endangered Smooth Purple Coneflower (Echinacea laevigata) and the asparagus-like stems of the Eastern Prairie Wild Indigo (Baptisia minor var. aberrans).

And, we saw many prairie grass species on our walk, including Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans), two grasses most people associate with Midwestern prairies. The damp, shady hillsides near the river were teeming with species of blooming native sedges (Carex spp.). We relished a close-up look at a large stand of Dutchmen’s Britches (Dicentra cucullaria), which is a rare plant in the North Carolina Piedmont. On the drier, upland areas with partial tree cover, other native sedges were emerging.

While the grasslands of the Great Plains are iconic, southern grasslands house a wider range of plants and animals, and their preservation is critical to maintaining ecological diversity. According to Alan Weakley,
“Within North America, the southeastern United States is only rivaled by parts of California and the southwestern United States in its diversity of ecosystems and its richness in plant and animal species.”

Alan Weakley at Penny's Bend
Alan Weakley, Curator of the UNC-Chapel Hill Herbarium, examines the inflorescence of a grass in the field.

He went on to say that southern grasslands—including savannas, glades, and barrens—contain more than their share of this great diversity. Unfortunately, these ecosystems are increasingly threatened.

When we asked Johnny Randall why conservation efforts were important and what role grasses played, he told us,
“Our remnant Southern grasslands represent the vestiges of once extensive grass-dominated ecosystems. And within these vestiges, grasses continue to provide the matrix of these complex and species rich ecological communities on which grassland birds and other associated animal species depend.”
Later that day, we attended Reed Noss’ lecture based on his book. After hiking grasslands during the day, and hearing more about their importance in maintaining ecological diversity, we have a new-found appreciation for southern grasslands.

We’re proud to have played a role in bringing Dr. Noss to the area. Thanks to the North Carolina Botanical Garden for giving us the opportunity.

Penny's Bend Nature Preserve
This upland area at Penny’s Bend Nature Preserve is anchored by a number of native grass species.

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