Plant of the Week
Latin: Adropogon virginicus
Arkansas roadways during winter are mostly painted in shades of gray and charcoal from the trunks of the trees and tan and brown from the native broomsedge that seems to occupy most sunny spots. The hold this grass has on the ground is tenacious and bears a closer look.
Broomsedge, Andropogon virginicus, is not a sedge at all but a grass in the same genus as the more appreciated little and big bluestem. It’s a clump-forming perennial warm season grass that sends up slender stems to three feet tall in late summer. These produce numerous white, wind-borne seeds that glow when the sunlight catches them just right.
The native range of broomsedge is across all of the eastern states anywhere rainfall exceeds 25 inches per year. It grows on nutrient-poor soils and is especially tolerant of low nitrogen and phosphorous levels.
In the springtime, the grass produces clumps of curly, boot-top-tall blades that cattle will eat, but the fodder provided is short lived and grazers ignore it once the slender stems appear in fall. Unless you’re a grass expert, broomsedge is hardly noticed except during the fall and winter when the warm tones of tan, beige, orange and copper brighten the roadsides in winter.
It earned its common name because it made a passable broom for use in pioneer homesteaders. Several handfuls of broom sedge stems harvested after the first frost, tied tightly around a stout stick and then trimmed to length made a serviceable broom, though not nearly as durable as store bought brooms made from fibers of Sorghum vulgare.
Broomsedge is an invader grass, one moving into old fields, road cuts, overgrazed pastures and other places with bare ground. But, unlike most invaders in these early stages of ecological succession, broomsedge tends to occupy a site and only reluctantly give it over to more permanent members of the plant community.
The reason for this tight grip on the control of the ground is broomsedge’s ability to produce allelopathic chemicals suppressing the germination and growth of competitive species. In effect it makes its own natural weed killers.
Because broomsedge seeds are immune to the effect of the allelopathic chemicals, pure stands are common in the early stages of old field succession. In nutrient-poor sites, broomsedge will maintain a grip on the land for many years, but in more fertile soils its hold is usually under a decade before it begins to give way to other species.
Broomsedge is not usually grown as an ornamental, though a few nurserymen have made selections of especially colorful clumps. I’m in the process of designing a wildflower meadow for out new botanical garden in northwest Arkansas and plan on using a swath of it across the space for wintertime interest. If you wish to control it, springtime fires tend to suppress it while wintertime fires encourage its spread.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - February 2, 2007
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.