Downy brome/Cheat grass (Bromus tectorum)
Photo credits: Irene Shonle
Cheatgrass, also known as downy brome (Bromus tectorum), originally from Eurasia, is rapidly becoming one of the biggest problem plants in the Western United States. It has already taken over large areas in the plains areas of the Front Range, and has destroyed millions of acres in the West. Because of this, it is on the State Noxious Weed List, and has been added to the Gilpin County list as well. It is very difficult to control once established, and we in the mountains are in the stage of early invasion — it’s not yet too late too keep it from taking over.
Once you learn to recognize it, it is easy to spot, even when traveling along the highway at 60 miles an hour. It is light green, with nodding seeds heads that wave in the slightest breeze, and forms thick-but- airy, shimmering clumps. As it matures, it changes to a purplish-brown color and then to a straw color. It dries out before most grasses do, which also helps in the identification.
Cheatgrass is native to the Mediterranean region and Eurasia. It was first identified in the United States in the late 1800s and by the early 1900s cheatgrass was found in every western state. Cheatgrass is an annual grass, which means that each plant starts from a seed each year, grows to maturity, produces seed and dies. Researchers have found that the viable life of cheatgrass seeds is at least 5 years and a single plant under good growing conditions can produce several thousand seeds. These factors assure there will be seeds continuously available for germination if the soil moisture and temperature are suitable once cheatgrass occupies a site –which means control efforts must continue for that long. Cheatgrass seed is easily spread, it has small spines or awns about ½ inch long on each seed that readily attach to the clothing of people, the hair of animals and it is light enough that it can be blown around and lodge in the underside of vehicles.
Once cheatgrass gets a strong foothold, it can easily take over a site, completely taking over native plants. But choking out native plants is not even the worst of it. It also dramatically changes the fire ecology of an area.
Fire and cheatgrass conspire to build each other up and ultimately destroy the native ecosystem. With every new fire, cheatgrass takes over more and more acreage and can ignite with the first strike of lightning. And with each new crop of cheatgrass comes the certainty that successive fires will burn hotter and more often, converting still more areas into uniform carpets of cheatgrass.
If you discover small patches on your property, you can keep them from taking over your yard by pulling them. Because it is an annual plant, pulling will get rid of it (although you may have to keep watch for a few years to ensure there are no more seeds waiting in the soil). Cheat grass can be mowed or weed whacked, but be sure to do so before the seeds develop, or you will just spread the seeds. In Gilpin County, cheatgrass goes to seed in mid-June.
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