Broomsedge grows well on pine plantations and on burned and cut-over land. Photo by Kenneth Boone

A native grass that’s treated like a weed

Broomsedge bluestem is a native warm season grass that folks tend to love or hate.

Many people find this grass beautiful in the cooler months when its golden color and tall, swaying form decorate open pine plantations and woodlands, pastures and grasslands. Look for it in managed pine forests along State Route 63 near Lake Martin.

Cattlemen, on the other hand, don’t much appreciate broomsedge bluestem grass since cows don’t like it and this grass can take over a pasture. It is considered an invasive species in many parts of the world.

In any case, this abundant wild grass is a beautiful part of our Alabama landscape, and while most people know it when they see it, that’s about where the knowledge stops.

Broomsedge bluestem grass, Andropogon virginicus, is also simply known as broomsedge, as well as yellow bluestem and whiskey grass, especially in Australia, where it was introduced as padding around U.S. whiskey bottles and is now considered a pest in that country.

It is now found in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, as well as in some Caribbean islands, Mexico and Central America.

Broomsedge begins growing in the spring when the highs are between 60-65 degrees (that was almost year-round this year in the Lake Martin area). It grows 2-4 feet tall and forms small clumps of grass.

Its leaves are 10-16 inches long, flat and less than 1/4 inch wide. During the growing season, the plant is pale greenish-yellow.

Its seed heads form on short stems enclosed by a short leaf or spathe. In the winter, when the broomsedge has gone dormant and turned golden brown, the fine light-colored hairs of expanded seed heads catch the light and look like tiny transparent white flags. Its seeds are numerous and small enough to be spread by wind. Once the seeds fall to the earth, they are likely to germinate and survive, which is why this plant can become weedy.

Broomsedge bluestem grass typically grows best in dry fields with low fertility, and can handle partial shade – such as in an open forest – as well as full sun.

In our area, it is almost always found on pine plantations, burned and cut-over land, as well as along railroad tracks and roadsides. It is common on sandy or loamy soils, but this is an adaptable grass that will grow in many different soil types. It often grows in abandoned pasturelands and can take over a field in four to five years.

Broomsedge bluestem grass is closely related to two other types of bluestem grasses native in Alabama: big bluestem and little bluestem.

According to a Georgia study, bobwhite quail often make their nests on the ground around clumps of broomsedge bluestem grass because the plants surround and provide some camouflage and protection above the nests.

Broomsedge is not on any grazing animal’s favorite foods list – neither domestic cows or wild grazers, including whitetail deer – though both will eat it, especially when it is young and green in the spring.

Some birds will eat broomsedge seeds, but only if other seeds are unavailable, though a number of birds use it to build nests. For that matter, it is also used in nest building by some native bees. And it is a larval host species for the Zabulon Skipper butterfly.

Because cows don’t like to eat it, and because it can overrun a pasture, farmers consider broomsedge bluestem grass a weed or a pest. The best way to get rid of it is to heavily graze the pasture in the early spring, when the young grass is more palatable to cows, or to cut it. The important thing is to prevent the broomsedge grass seeds from developing and dispersing.

This plant doesn’t have a lot of uses for people; however, it is said the Cherokee used the stems, sometimes in combination with onion peels, to make a yellow dye. Today, some people still gather dried broomsedge leaves and boil them to create a lemon yellow color that can be used to dye Easter eggs.

And finally, if you haven’t guessed it already, for centuries bunches of this dried grass have been tied to a handle make a good working broom, which is how Andropogon virginicus gets its most common common name.

Some information for this article came from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Dave’s Garden, the U.S. Forest Service and Go Botany.