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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on local landscape and natural history of Pend Oreille County, Washington. A partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department has allowed us to expand this program through EPA funding to include more classes, a newsletter and this website.

The Versatility of Native Grasses

by Sandie Durand

Giggles and grins erupt from the faces of my 7 year-old companions as a chorus of flute-like notes emanating from our grass whistles drift out over the Pend Oreille, catching a ride downriver with the high water current of spring runoff. A simple blade of grass held taut between two thumbs, pressed to the mouth and vibrating with exhaled breath creates this tuneful sound so familiar to generations of delighted children. Grass whistles are universal and often recall sweet childhood memories, such as today.

As a natural fiber weaver, my hands have gathered and worked with a variety of native grass species over the years to produce baskets, mats and wreaths. Intricate imbrications (decorations/patterns) from narrow leaved grass species in various colors offer a striking mosaic effect in weaving, by bringing the piece of grass over the outside of the last stitch and forward, then doubling it back and catching the doubled end with the next stitch. Differing sizes of plaited (braided) grass bundles can be utilized in the fabrication of baskets strong enough to carry firewood in winter or delicate enough to cradle cherished keepsakes. Weaving with native grasses for both beauty and utilitarian purposes is an ancient art.

Native grass species are an integral component of complex plant communities which support wildlife with cover and food, provide soil stabilization through extensive and fibrous root systems, reduce the impacts of non-point source pollution, lessen floodwater damage by acting as a sponge and slowly releasing the stored water over time, and contribute to the region’s natural and diverse scenic beauty.

Wandering our river valley landscape, we may find ourselves moving through a variety of these native grasses and I encourage you to learn more about them. This is merely a small sampling of the hardy grasses that grace Pend Oreille.

Idaho Fescue (Festuca idahoensis) is a densely tufted, cool season bunchgrass with fibrous roots and is utilized in slope stabilization projects. It grows from one to three feet tall in a variety of well-drained soils and is drought tolerant.

Bluebunch Wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata) is a cool season perennial, which forms large clumps with an extensive, deep, fibrous root system making it ideal for restoration and soil stabilization sites. This native grass is excellent forage for wildlife.

Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) is another tufted, cool season bunchgrass and reaches heights of one to two feet tall. Growth begins in May, followed by flowering in June; hence the common name. This species is found at different elevations on well-drained soils and is drought tolerant.

Pinegrass (Calamagrostis rubescens) has a creeping underground root system and can form extensive, beautiful stands, which is a valued growth habit in restoration work. Plant height can range from two to three feet tall with full sunlight required to stimulate flowering. Bear, elk and deer utilize it for forage and it provides important cover for birds and small mammals.

Common Sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) is a perennial grass, which grows from one to two feet tall and has rhizomatous (creeping) underground roots. This lovely grass is found in moist meadows, seeps and wetlands where one may notice a vanilla scent due to the presence of coumarin in the plant. Restoration sites with moderate slopes may utilize seed propagated plugs of this species for erosion control in areas where seeps are contributing to soil instability. Common Sweetgrass has important cultural significance for Indigenous Peoples across North America, including Interior Salish.

As development brings rapid change to our Pend Oreille landscape, we must recognize and embrace the necessity for retaining and restoring this vital component, along with the associated plant community. It is a natural and proven means of erosion control and requires low maintenance, if any, once established. Utilizing this native plant system is a logical approach to soil stabilization challenges created through site development disturbance, while also contributing to habitat diversity for wildlife and visual enjoyment for the human inhabitants.

Plan a picnic this summer and spend the day among our native grass communities. The natural rewards will be many and remember...grass whistles are waiting to be played...so find a shady spot beneath a grove of Quaking Aspen or Black Cottonwood and celebrate the moment with a grin-inducing tune. It feels great!

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