By Alyssa Nyberg
I seem to get more hugs from my seven-year-old son in the month of October than I do any other month of the year. When I come home from work at the Kankakee Sands Native Plant Nursery, he wraps his arms around me and says, “Mmmmm, you smell like butter.”
Actually, I smell not of butter, but of prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), a native grass of our Newton County landscape. Many native plants have their own unique personalities, fragrances, and cultural uses, and prairie dropseed is one such plant.
Prairie dropseed is a long-lived, perennial bunch grass which is ideal for landscaping. It is a dense tuft of long narrow leaves up to 20” in length and only 1/8” wide. When in the leaf stage, prairie dropseed is roughly 1-1.5’ in height. It has flowering stalks which emerge in the mid-summer and change the shape of the plant from a round mound of green to a flowing fountain of greens and brown. The seed heads reach upwards then drop over, creating an incredibly attractive 2.5’ plant. Prairie dropseed clumps can be divided in the spring or fall to create more plants for your landscaping.
It is the inflorescence, or flowering stalk, that has the rich buttery smell. Some, like my son, say it smells of butter, others suggest rancid butter, melted crayons or cilantro. The flowering stalk retains the fragrance as the flowers turn to seeds. The seeds are eaten by many of our seed-eating sparrows through the fall and winter. The leaves of the plant are enjoyed by many grazing animals including the American bison, cattle and horses.
Native Americans dried the seeds of prairie dropseed and then pounded them into flour. I have tried the seeds, but never harvested enough to grind them into flour. The seeds seemed too precious to be wasted on a meal for me. I’d rather the seeds fall to the ground and grow into more prairie dropseed plants.
Native to much of the United States, except the far northeast, south and west, prairie dropseed has a preference for sunny, dry to lightly moist soils. In the natural world, prairie dropseed can be found in all sorts of prairies: hill prairies, gravel prairies, dolomite prairies, black soil prairies, sand prairies, cemetery prairies and prairie remnants along railroad right-of-ways. (Did you know there were so many different types or prairies?!) Prairie dropseed is also found in savannas and grassy fens. It is a characteristic plant of well established, “old” prairies.
At Kankakee Sands, you will find prairie dropseed growing in many of our restoration plantings. You can even find a few growing up at Conrad Station Savanna, located at the north end of Kankakee Sands. There is a large bed of prairie dropseed growing at the Kankakee Sands Native Plant Nursery. Feel free to come by in September and October to see it and smell it for yourself.
Native plants are given a conservation value, a “C Value”, ranked from 0 to 10. If a plant is native but extremely common and weedy, like ragweed, it would be assigned a value of 0. A rarer plant associated with high quality natural areas, like Michigan lily or bottle gentian, would receive a value of 10. Non-native plants get no value at all, not even a 0. Prairie dropseed ranks in at a 10! In the world of native plants, it doesn’t get much fancier than prairie dropseed.
And now, during this cold and cozy time of year, the air is frigid outside and the kitchen is warm with the smells of freshly baked bread. My son is busy at the kitchen table, concentrating on buttering his piece of warm bread. I simply can’t resist hugging him and saying, “Mmmmm, you smell like prairie dropseed.”
The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands of Indiana and Illinois is 10,000 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois, open every day of the year for public enjoyment. For more information visit our website or call the office at 219-285-2184.