Sloughgrass and Common Names
Perhaps like you I watched the Sloughgrass Family Band on Prairie Public Television’s Prairie Musicians program recently. I couldn’t help but wonder why the band took that name. I suppose most any grass that grows in a slough or wet area could be called sloughgrass. And although there are probably thirty some wetland grasses native to our state, sloughgrass is most often used to reference two plants, Beckmannia syzigachne or Spartina pectinata.
Spartina pectinata is the better known of the two, and is more commonly known as prairie cordgrass. Although it does occasionally grow in shallow water, I see it most frequently in wet meadows or low prairie. It is a native warm season rhizomatous perennial that grows to a height of three feet or more. Another common name for this plant is ripgut, a reference to the strongly serrated edges of the large tough leaves. Don’t walk through this stuff in shorts!
Beckmannia syzigachne on the other hand is a native cool season annual or short lived perennial. It grows in habitats similar to that of Spartina pectinata and stands two feet tall or so. Beckmannia is palatable and nutritious to livestock and big game.
“Sloughgrass” is a good example of why common names are often problematic in plants. A common name may refer to several plants, and regionally the use of common names is even more variable. So botanists and other people that work with plants often use genus and species names in conversation, not to impress anyone, but to avoid the confusion that often results from using common names.
For example, a few years ago on a grassland tour a person was asking a question on the ecology of Poa pratensis, what most of us know as Kentucky bluegrass. However, the person knew the plant only by the common name Junegrass, which most people know as a much different grass Koeleria pyramidata. We eventually got it figured out, but it was downright confusing for a while.
A couple weeks ago I spoke of duckweed and how they absorb large amounts of nitrogen and potassium from water. Duckweeds do absorb some potassium, but I should have said phosphorus rather than potassium.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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