Monday, October 31, 2022

Mass Flowering of Native C4 Grasses in a Florida Savanna

Andropogon ternarius (syn. Andropogon cabanisii)

Update: Thanks to an unknown commentator and the infernal never ending work of taxonomists, the following corrections are added - the Andropogon ternarius depicted is synonymously termed Andropogon cabanisii, while the Andropogon glomeratus here is Andropogon tenuispatheus, which is synonymous with Andropogon glomeratus var. pumilus. 

Update 2: Added comments and pics of Saccharum giganteum.

The passing of the seasons can be seen in the regular changes in the grasses that make up a landscape. Even here in subtropical Florida, the coming of Fall heralds the flowering of many of the C4 grasses that dominate the longleaf pine savannas that are a marvelous (but threatened) fixture of the natural environment. 

Andropogon glomeratus (syn. Andropogon tenuispatheus)

I visit the Nature Conservancy's Disney Preserve in Kissimmee fairly regularly, and during my visit this late October, the surroundings were suddenly aglow with the sudden flowering of several C4 grasses. 

If you remember from earlier posts, C4 grasses have a specialized carbon-concentrating photosynthetic mechanism that allows them to be more efficient in hot and arid conditions, and they tend to grow fastest and flower during the latter parts of the season. 

Andropogon ternarius (syn. Andropogon cabanisii)

Whereas before, the preserve was a somewhat monotonous landscape of Serenoa repens (saw palmetto) and various smaller grasses like Aristida beyrichiana, with longleaf pines interspersed at almost regular intervals, now the area was dominated by the visually arresting inflorescence of different Andropogon spp. and a few other C4 grasses.,

Sorghastrum secundum

I admittedly am still learning how to identify the many Andropogon spp, but there were a few species that stood out enough that even I was able to identify them. Among the most beautiful was Andropogon ternarius (locally called Splitbeard Bluestem in this area, syn Andropogon cabanisii). Each inflorescence contained a pair of silvery racemes that formed a distinct V, with the awned spikelets giving it a beautiful feathery appearance.

Sorghastrum secundum

Some other Andropogon spp that were in flower included A. glomeratus (Bushy Bluestem, syn Andropogon tenuispatheus), A. virginicus (Broomsedge), and others that I cannot yet identify to species. 

Sorghastrum secundum flowerheads rise up from the understory

An interesting new grass that I found was Sorghastrum secundum, which is related of course to the more well known Sorghastrum nutans (locally called Indiangrass). Unlike S. nutans, the spikelets in S. secundum are all located to one side of the raceme, and this gave rise to one of the local names for it, Lopsided Indiangrass.

Sorghastrum secundum with mostly detached spikelets

But perhaps the most beautiful species that graced the preserve during my visits was Muhlenbergia sericea. This grass is also known as Muhlenbergia capillaris var filipes, and known locally as Gulf Muhly and Sweetgrass.

Muhlenbergia sericea (capillaris)

The purplish inflorescence waved easily in the breeze, and looked almost ethereal when seen in front of the sun's bright rays. M. sericea and its relatives are used often as ornamental grasses here in the peninsula, although I noticed that there is a hit and miss quality when it comes to the lavishness of its flowering in cultivation.

Muhlenbergia sericea (capillaris) line the hiking trail

People were not the only ones appreciative of this species. I also saw a juvenile alligator hiding in the shade of one of the M. sericea specimens (see image below).

An alligator under Muhlenbergia sericea

Perhaps most remarkable of all were vast fields of Saccharum giganteum (locally called Sugarcane Plumegrass), which lay behind rows of Andropogon glomeratus that lined the road leading in and out of the preserve.

Andropogon grasses were in abundance at the preserve (forefront). The tall grasses behind it in the far distance were Saccharum giganteum.

I could not identify them at first due to the distance, but after an unknown commentator mentioned the name, I later came back and waded into the field and took pics.

Saccharum giganteum

The culms and sheaths were quite hairy, and so too were the flowerheads. Macroshots revealed that the spikelets had a ring of long white hairs rising from the base, and straight awns that nailed the ID as S. giganteum.

Saccharum giganteum flowerhead. Inside pic shows expansion of the inflorescence against an aroid backdrop.
Saccharum giganteum spikelet showing long callus hairs and awn.

In the end, there were quite a few species that were in flower that I could not identify at the time. This was especially true for the Andropogon spp, which I am still learning about. Nevertheless, I'll be sure to drop by again soon to continue my exploration of this beautiful grassland, and perhaps someday I'll be able to name all the various species I encounter.


  1. Saccharum giganteum is the background grass

    1. I'm actually hoping to go closer to them this week to verify the correct ID. Here's hoping I don't step on some snake or gator.

    2. You are right on. They are Saccharum giganteum.

  2. The ternarius-type Andropogon is A. cabanisii (rames borne on long-exerted, often drooping pedicels). The glomeratus-type Andropogon in all these pics is A. tenuispatheus (used to be glomeratus var. pumilus).

    1. Thank you very much! I have added an update paragraph.

  3. Wow ... what a beautiful collection of grasses!

    1. This is the first time I've ever been to a longleaf savanna during Fall, and with the Muhlenbergia in flower, and the Andropogon all over the place in their best finery, I was definitely entertained.