GRASSES
Native to Tallgrass Prairie

SWITCHGRASS
(Panicum virgatum)

Description 

During the fall, many of the native grasses become indistinguishable at a distance, but among the grasses several loose clumps with an orange tint may be seen. This orange-tinted plant is likely to be switchgrass. The generic name, Panicum, comes from the word "panic," meaning "millet." The species name, virgatum, comes from the Latin word virg, meaning "wand-like," such as a magician's wand.

The stem of this grass is often purplish to reddish in color, and turns an orange tint when it matures, growing 1 to 6 feet (0.5-2
m) tall. Its leaves are flat and rough, reaching 4 to 25 inches (10-60 cm) in length, with a triangular patch of hairs at the base
and a hairy ligule . The seed head is very open, with branches projecting outward. This species is a sod-forming grass and produces scaly rhizomes . New plants arise from buds at the base of the plant and from the rhizomes .
Distribution 

Switchgrass is native to the tallgrass prairie of North America. It is a dominant species of the tallgrass prairie throughout the
Great Plains. Switchgrass can be found in the provinces of Southern Manitoba to Eastern Saskatchewan of Canada and in all states except five in the far West and Northwest United States.

In South Dakota, switchgrass is located mostly in the eastern part of the state, but also grows along drainages and ravine
bottoms in the west.

Natural History

Switchgrass, a warm season, perennial grass, begins growth in April or May, and flowers in early summer. The seeds are
carried by birds and small mammals. Switchgrass reproduces three ways: sexually by seeds that mature in the late summer
and early fall; asexually by shoots called tillers, which grow above ground near the base of a plant; and asexually by the
scaly underground stems, known as rhizomes .

Significance

Switchgrass is a fair to good quality forage for all types of livestock, such as cattle, horses, sheep, and goats, but only of fair
quality for most wildlife species. It does, however, offer good wildlife habitat. The seeds are a food source for various
species of waterfowl, shorebirds, upland birds, and songbirds. The grass provides excellent yields of seed, vigorous growth,
and high forage values when young. As the plant becomes mature, the nutrient content and palatability decline, causing the
forage to become practically worthless nutritionally during the late summer and early fall. Because switchgrass decreases
under grazing pressure, its abundance easily can be reduced if livestock are not well managed. Switchgrass can produce
between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds (1,364 to 1818 kg) of forage per acre. Switchgrass produces excellent hay, and is often
used with other grasses on blowing sands for erosion control.

During the days of the great buffalo hunt, Indians avoided laying their meat near switchgrass as it would adhere to the meat
causing it to stick to a person's throat when eaten.

Glossary


Asexually - the type of reproduction that is accomplished by an individual without the help of another individual. The resulting offspring will be genetically identical to the adult.
Ligules - a small projection on the upper side and at the base of the leaf blade where it joins the sheath. This structure can be in the form of hairs or a membrane.
Palatability - suitability for eating by livestock or other grazing animals.
Perrenial - a plant that lives for more than two years.
Rhizomes - underground stems that are capable of reproducing new plants.
Tillers - a shoot arising from the base of a plant which produces other plants.
Warm season grass - a grass that produces seed in the warmest months of the growing season.

References


Gilmore, Melvin R., 1991. Uses of Plants by the Indians of Missouri River Region. University Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE.
Hatch, Stephen and James Stubbendick and Charles Butterfield, 1991. North American Range Plants. University Nebraska
Press, Lincoln, NE.
Johnson, James and James Nichols, 1982. Plants of South Dakota Grasslands. SDSU, Brookings, SD.
USDA, Forest Service, 1988. Range Plant Handbook. Dover Publications, New York, NY.
Van Bruggen, Theodore, 1983. Wildflowers, Grasslands, and other Plants of Northern Plains and Black Hills. Badlands
Natural History Association, Interior, SD.

Written by:
Justin S. Keyser, USDA, Forest Service, Wall, SD 57790. 1994.

Reviewed by:
Dr. Gary E. Larson, Department of Biology and Microbiology, SDSU, Brookings, SD 57007.

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

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