GRASSES
Native to Tallgrass Prairie

Prairie Cordgrass
(Spartina pectinata)

Description 

George Catlin, an artist and explorer of the American West in the 1800's, once described a prairie in Kansas as, "so high that
we are obliged to stand in our stirrups in order to look over its waving tops as we are riding through it." This may very well
have been a field of prairie cordgrass that he and his horse were passing through. This grass is known to reach heights of 4
to 10 feet (1.2 to 3 meters), giving it the distinction of being one of the tallest grasses native to North America.

Spartina, in the plant's scientific name, comes from the Greek word, spartine, meaning "a cord made from spartes." This is a
reference to the tough, coarse leaves. The species name pectinata comes from the Greek word pecten, meaning comb. This
refers to the comb-like appearance of the one-sided spikes on the plant's seed head. Each plant produces 10 to 30 spikes . The flowers in the spikes are arranged in tight rows on one side of the flowering branches, like the teeth of a comb. These spikes are 1.5 to 3 inches (3.8 to 7.6 cm) long, and fringed with short awns . The leaves of prairie cordgrass grow up to 30 inches (76 cm) long, tapering off to a sharp point. They are smooth and shiny on the surface, and have sharp, tiny teeth on the margins, giving them an abrasive feel. The Lakota name for the species is santuha tanka.

Species Distribution
Distribution 

Prairie cordgrass is native to the tallgrass prairie and is found in wet prairies, roadsides, marshy meadows, and along
streams, dams, and drainages. The common nickname "sloughgrass," given to prairie cordgrass, refers to the wet conditions in which it grows.

Prairie cordgrass has a wide distribution. It is found in the wet prairies of Canada, and is native to all but eight states of the
Southwest and Southeast United States. In South Dakota, prairie cordgrass can be found in almost any wet or moist area;
however, it is more abundant in the eastern part of the state. It is often found in pure stands.

Natural History

Prairie cordgrass is capable of reproducing both sexually by seeds and asexually by rhizomes. Rhizomes are scaly, stout,
woody underground stems that develop into new plants. Rhizomes form a dense, tough mat beneath the ground that protects
the soil from eroding away. A closely related European species has assumed great importance as a soil binder along the
coastal areas of the Netherlands, Northern France, and Southern England. Prairie cordgrass is a warm season, perennial
grass that begins its growth in early spring. The seedhead or spikes develop in late summer.

Significance

When prairie cordgrass has matured and reached the end of its growing season, the plant is very coarse. Domestic and wild
animals will eat it only in the early spring when the plant is succulent and tender. The species can produce forage at a rate of
3,000 to 4,000 pounds (1364 to 1818 kg) per acre. Prairie cordgrass is sometimes cut for hay, although the ground it grows
in is seldom plowed because of its wetness. Prairie cordgrass produces good hiding cover for waterfowl and their young.
American Indians and pioneers used the long leaves and stout stems of prairie cordgrass for thatching roofs and lodges.

Glossary


Asexually - (asexual reproduction) - a type of reproduction that is accomplished by an individual without genetic contribution from another individual. The resulting offspring is genetically identical to the parent plant.
Awn - a bristle-like appendage on a plant.
Spikes - part of the seedhead that contains the flowers and seeds of the grass plant.
Rhizomes - underground stems capable of asexually producing a new plant.
Perennial - a plant that can live more than 2 years.

References


Brown, Lauren, 1985. Grasslands. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Publishing, New York.
Hatch, Stephen and James Stubbendieck, and Charles Butterfield, 1991. North American Range Plants. Univ. of Nebraska
Press, Lincoln, Nebraska.
Hitchcock, A.J., 1971. Manual of Grasses of the U.S. Dover Publications, New York.
Johnson, James and James Nichols, 1982. Plants of South Dakota Grasslands. SDSU, Brookings, S.D. 57007.
Looman, Jan, 1982. Prairie grasses, Pub. 1413. Canadian Government Publishing Centre, Ottawa, Canada.

Written by:
Jack Isaacs, Nebraska National Forest, Pierre, S.D. 57501. 1993.

Reviewed by:
Dr. Gary E. Larson, Department of Biology and Micrbiology, SDSU, Brookings, 57707.

Illustration by Bellamy Parks Jansen provided by University of Nebraska Press.

Publication of the Prairie Cordgrass fact sheet was funded through a Natural Resource Conservation Education Grant,
USDA, Forest Service.