Is bottle brush grass, the most shade tolerant species of genus Elymus (wildrye grasses), really the woodland plant it is advertised to be?
Traditional medicinal use:
Bottle-brush grass wasn’t used to used by Native American tribes to treat human illnesses, discomforts or pain. Instead, it was was used as a “ceremonial medicine” by the Haudenosaunee. Before planting, corn seed was soaked in a “medicinal” decoction of water, bottle brush leaves and reed grass rootstocks (Moerman, 2009). This was believed to aid in seed germination (Haudenosaunee Confederancy). The Haudenosaunee traditionally planted corn seed in mounds or hills which were slightly elevated relative to ground level whose soil may have been drier than the average soil moisture levels.
A perennial wild rye, bottle brush grass is unmistakeable due to its widely-spaced, spreading, long-awned spikelets. Bottle brush grass is one of the most shade tolerant tall native grasses. As the seeds mature, the spikelets develop a straw color. The arching leaves are linear, smooth, grayish to dark green and up to 12” in length. Individual stems can be higher than 3’ tall. The grass has a fibrous root system and spreads by reseeding itself.
“The genus Elymus has been at the centre of taxonomic controversy due in part to the rearrangement of the species in the related genus Agropyron, a genus in the Wheatgrass tribe. For many years grass taxonomists had arranged taxa according to species that were recognized from Europe, and these were compared to what was native to North America. In the last 50 years a great deal of taxonomic work has been done in Russia, Asia and China, and the implication of this work is that a number of species in North America are similar to larger genera that are common in these countries.”
Bottle brush grass is earning increasing space as an accent plant in gardens. These days, people are increasingly interested in gardening with native plants or plants with high pollinator value. While many generally don’t think of native grasses as having much pollinator value, several species of butterflies, moths, beetles, and flies use bottle brush grass as a host plant (Tangren, 2018). The combination of visual appeal, shade tolerance, native plant status and habitat value is a set of traits many gardeners find appealing particularly for less structured gardens.
Bottle brush grass is a native wild rye. Where native wild ryes occur in abundance, they are important forage grasses forming part of the native hay. If it were more abundant, bottle brush grass would likely be high-quality forage.
Stuff Almost Nobody Knows:
(for the perpetually curious)
Bottle-brush grass seems to be widely distributed yet generally not abundant when found in the wild. This observation is consistent with reports that bottle-brush grass is relatively non-aggressive and does not vigorously claim territory. What ecological niche is filled by a relatively non-aggressive perennial native grass tolerant of partial shade but requiring good soil?
One report of an ecological community where the bottle brush grass population was originally occasional and is now widespread comes from an ongoing project to restore and maintain a degraded oak savanna in Wisconsin (Brock and Brock, 2004). An oak savanna is a plant community with scattered “open-grown” oak trees, now one of the rarest plant communities on earth (Savanna Oak Foundation, Inc., 2020). In an oak savanna, tree density is so low that grasses and other herbaceous plants actually dominate the plant community; canopy coverage in an oak savanna is by definition less than 50%. The trees in an oak savanna grow to be quite large because each tree receives maximum sunlight and there is little competition for sunlight between individual trees. The level of shade varies dramatically across the ecosystem, creating opportunities for both sun-loving and shade-loving plants to grow. Oak savannas are fire-dependent ecosystems and the openness between large trees is maintained by frequent fires with low flame heights. The reason an oak savanna might evolve instead of a mixed-hardwood savanna is because among hardwood trees, oaks, and especially bur oaks, are uniquely resistant to fire except when young (Savanna Oak Foundation, Inc., 2020).
The geographically widespread but locally non-abundant distribution of wild bottle brush grass suggests that today’s wild plants are a remnant of what was once a much more abundant population. The observation that bottle brush grass in the wild tends to be associated with high quality woodlands could indicate the species has managed use its shade tolerance to find some refuge in the woods in the face of widespread loss of more-preferred oak savanna-like habitat.
People have been altering the landscape for millennia and the level of alteration has become increasingly heavy-handed since the dawn of the industrial age. Oak savannas are an ecosystem that probably only rarely occur naturally. In North America, the fires which would have created or maintained these fire-dependent plant communities would historically have been caused either by lightning or by actions taken by the Native Americans and it is probable that when these ecosystems were most widespread, actions taken by the Native Americans were a much more substantial source of fires than lightning. Therefore, if bottle brush grass was historically abundant in oak savannas, at least some of this abundance was most likely due to human alteration of the landscape. The work being done to restore the degraded oak savanna in Wisconsin isn’t important just because it is restoring an ecosystem listed as “globally imperiled”. These kinds of projects can help us understand how plants like bottle brush grass fit ecologically, help us pinpoint where species like bottle brush grass may thrive and suggest ways to improve the productivity or health of landscapes that exist now. People will continue to alter the landscape and a broader understanding of the range of contributions possible by various plant species and the conditions under which those contributions can be made, coupled with the preservation of such species if imperiled, leaves open the most options for future landscape health and vitality.
Black Squirrel Farms strives for accuracy but everyone makes mistakes sometimes. We’re happy to update our information if needed. Please contact us if you spot an error or have a suggested edit, update or information inclusion. Help is welcome.
Brock, T. and Brock, M., 2004. “Oak Savanna Restoration: Problems and Possibilities”. North American Prairie Conference, NAPC Proceedings 83, 2004, https://oaksavannas.org/PDF/Savanna-restoration.pdf
Haudenosaunee Confederancy, 2020. “Food and Hunting”. Official website of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, https://www.haudenosauneeconfederacy.com/historical-life-as-a-haudenosaunee/food-and-hunting/
Moerman, D., 2009. “Native American Medicinal Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary”. Timber Press, Inc., Portland, Oregon.
Moore, K., 2011. “Bottlebrush grass”. The Carrboro Citizen, Jun 23, 2011, http://www.ibiblio.org/carrborocitizen/flora/2011/06/bottlebrush-grass/#:~:text=Elymus%20is%20the%20genus%20name,part%20of%20the%20native%20hay.
Tangren, S., 2018. “Bottlebrush Grass – Gorgeous Native Ornamental For Your Garden”. Maryland Grows blog, Jun 8, 2018, https://marylandgrows.umd.edu/2018/06/08/bottlebrush-grass-gorgeous-ornamental-for-your-garden/
Savanna Oak Foundation, Inc., 2020. “Oak Savannas”. Pleasant Valley Conservancy State Natural Area, Black Earth, Wisconsin. https://pleasantvalleyconservancy.org/savannas.html
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service PLANTS database (Elymus hystrix L., eastern bottlebrush grass), https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=ELHY