Identifying plant life is the first step towards making you a better grass manager
By Loretta Sorensen
Photos by Terryn Drieling
“Sedges have edges. Rushes are round. Grasses are hollow. What have you found?” (author unknown)
There’s no need to become a botanist in order to gather information pasture forage provides. However, at least a basic understanding of the different types of plant groups common to grazing land can be helpful for identification.
Plant populations reveal important information, such as soil quality, past disturbances and more.
South Dakota State University Assistant Professor and plant systematist, Maribeth Latvis, says learning the three plant three major plant groups – grasses and grasslike plants, forbs and shrubs and trees – can be a good starting point for developing plant identification skills.
In general, grasses and grasslike plants are wind-pollinated plants that don’t offer large or showy flowers. Rather they tuck their flowers inside specialized reproductive structures not visible to the naked eye. They also have long, strappy leaves with parallel venation.
“Grasses are in one plant family that is incredibly diverse,” Latvis says. “But there are some features that can help us distinguish between one grass and the next.”
For example, grasses have a little flap of tissue where leaves meet the stem (the ligule) that can be diagnostic for certain species. Grasses have round, hollow stems.
“Also, it’s good to notice features of the flowering part of the grass,” notes Latvis. “How are the flowering units distributed along the stem? Are they closely packed together or loosely distributed? How many little flowers are tucked inside a flowering unit? All these features are important for good grass identification.”
Start with the root
To determine if a plant is an annual or perennial, remove the root from the ground. A voluminous root indicates that the plant is likely a perennial because the root has opportunity to grow and develop each year. Annual plant roots are smaller and tend to be easier to pull out of the ground. Bunchgrasses, which are perennials, have large, clumpy roots, which are generally more difficult to remove from the ground.
“A lot of exotic invasive species tend to be annuals,” shares Latvis. “They grow super-fast, dump a large volume of seed into the seedbank and then die out.”
Sedges are grasslike, but have triangular stems.
“If you see a cross-section of the sedge stem or roll it between your fingers, you’ll feel the triangle,” Latvis says. “Sedge stems are solid rather than hollow and many of these plants tend to prefer wetter habitats, whereas grasses are found everywhere.”
Rushes are also grasslike and almost exclusively wetland plants. These plants have stems that are round and solid.
Forbs encompass plants that aren’t grasslike, nor are they woody. This category includes a “ton” of plants, which typically have wide leaves that contain both a primary and secondary vein network. Compared to grasses, forbs have showier flowers. Goldenrod and gayfeather are examples of forbs.
Two common forb families to look for are the sunflower family and legume/pea family. In the sunflower family, the flowering head is actually made up of many flowers.
“The sunflower’s center is brown, but if you look closely at the center you’ll see it’s made up of tiny flowers,” Latvis explains. “The perimeter of the sunflower head is long, strappy petals. But there are other stand-alone flowers in that center.”
The legumes/pea family has compound leaves, meaning one leaf is divided into many different leaflets. They produce elongated pods (legumes) for fruits, such as beans and peas. Other common legumes found on grazing land include alfalfa and vetches. Plants within this family also have nodules on their roots for fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere.
In contrast with forbs and grasslikes, shrubs and trees are woody.
“In identifying plants outside the grass family, look at leaf arrangement,” Latvis suggests. “Do leaves alternate with each other or are they opposite each other on the stem? The leaves themselves also have good features to examine. For example, a leaf margin may be smooth, lobed or have teeth. The leaf itself can be hairy, smooth, etc.”
Steps to identifying a plant include:
-Capturing a photo or physical sample of the plant.
-Comparing the picture and/or sample to known species.
-Documenting any differences.
-Consulting an Extension or Natural Resource Conservation Service representative for assistance with plant identification.
-When necessary, submitting a physical sample or detailed photos to a plant expert.
“You get the most information about a plant during its reproductive stage,” Latvis points out. “At that stage you can assess the shape of the plant flower or fruit.”
To capture images or specimens of plants during their reproductive stage, walk through pasture areas every month or few weeks throughout the growing season.
Become a better grass manager
Starting small and building on plant identification experiences can lead to valuable observation skills and records.
Pete Bauman, Range Extension Field Specialist in Watertown, SD, says plants are a major indicator of what’s happened on a grazing area in the past and its current quality.
“Visits to the pasture don’t have to be arduous or intimidating,” Bauman suggests. “When you walk through an area, go slow. Think critically about what you’re seeing – and what you don’t see. Ask yourself some questions, such as how does this year’s fly-load differ from last year? What am I seeing in the pasture now that I didn’t see a few years ago? Or what was here last year but isn’t here now?
“Don’t hesitate to seek help to interpret what you’re observing,” Bauman adds. “Take time to learn about your most valuable asset, your land.”
Cell phones can serve as on on-site resource for comparing plants on the land to photos online. They can also be a convenient and effective means of documenting plant life and forage quality/density throughout each stage of the growing season. Simple, archived photos or the use of an application can help organize and archive a series of pictures.
Bauman empathizes with landowners who struggle to find the motivation to learn more about plant identity because he started at that same point.
“Once you start learning how much plants can tell you about soil quality and results of your management strategy, you automatically want to know more about plant identity,” he says. “Understanding what you see and what each plant type says about your grazing lands absolutely broadens your perspective on how your management system impacts your land and how land management affects all land as a whole.”
THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT!
Leafsnap (free) is a series of electronic field guides being developed by researchers from Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institute. Using visual recognition software, Leafsnap helps identify tree species. The growing database includes trees found in the Northeastern United States and Canada.
GrassSnap (free), developed by University of Nebraska/Lincoln, allows range managers to amass and archive grassland photos for ongoing use in management plans.
SoilWeb (free), developed by the California Soil Resources Lab at UC Davis uses USDA-NRCS soil survey information to give a summary of soils and links to more details about a GPS-specific site. Information includes a list of plants that could be found at the site.
BRIT Guide to Texas Range and Pasture Plants ($1.99), developed by the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. Some 129 plants with photos and characteristics.
SDCES Grazing Records (free), developed by South Dakota Cooperative Extension, providing ability to record and calculate pasture information, forage availability and number of animal units a specific site will support.
Other online plant identification resources:
Many state-specific plant identification websites are also available.
Online plant identification resources include: