Contributed by Lois K. Ports for Bristlecone Audubon Chapter
Nevada became a state on October 31, 1864. Over the years the Nevada Legislature has honored the State’s natural resources and cultural heritage with a variety of state designations. Many like the state bird, Mountain Bluebird, are well known but others are less well known and recognized. In 1977 the legislature designated Indian Ricegrass as the official state grass.
Indian Ricegrass does well in sandy soils and is adapted to dry places. You can find it in sagebrush, juniper, or ponderosa pine habitats. It is a bunchgrass (grows in clumps) that grows from 1 to 2½ feet tall. It has many tightly rolled, slender leaves, growing from the base of the bunch giving it a slightly wiry appearance. It is an open, branching panicle, consisting of long, stalks that look like hairs. Each branch ends in a single seed. The small seed is covered with short hairs, is black, and is the portion used for food. The seeds fall easily from the plant when it is mature.
Indian Ricegrass was once a staple food source for Nevada Indians including the Paiute tribe. The Paiute tribe were skilled basket makers and wove their baskets so closely that they could contain the smallest of seeds and hold water. Indian Ricegrass was gathered by beating the plant with a light paddle which allowed the seeds to fall into shallow winnowing baskets placed below. The seeds were then dried and the hairs removed. Then the grain could be roasted and ground into meal.
Indian ricegrass is an important food for livestock and for wild grazers including mule deer, pronghorns, desert bighorn sheep and jackrabbits. It is especially important in late winter, as it produces green shoots earlier than other grasses. The seeds are eaten by many rodents including kangaroo rats and birds such as mourning doves.
This tough native grass, which is found throughout Nevada, is known for its ability to reseed and establish itself on sites damaged by fire or overgrazing. The seeds have a thick seed coat and this can make them long-lived but slow to germinate. Stands may require two to five years to fully establish.
The fact that the seeds are often a preferred food of the small kangaroo rat actually aids in the successive growth of the Indian ricegrass plant. The small, nocturnal kangaroo rat harvests seeds from the ricegrass and stuffs them into their cheek pouches. The kangaroo rat does not hibernate during the winter so some of the seeds are taken to the rodent’s burrow to be cached in underground granaries for later use. The seeds cached in the burrow are usually too deep to allow for seedling emergence. The kangaroo rat will also cache seeds in scattered shallow holes that it digs in its home range. The tough outer seed coatings are removed by the rodent and then the seeds are covered by dirt to hide the cache. A single kangaroo rat might make hundreds of shallower scatterhoards, many of which are not eaten and thusly germinate in the spring. Seeds that have fallen naturally to the ground take much longer to germinate compared to the seeds ‘planted’ by the kangaroo rats.
If you would like to learn more about other Nevada State Symbols join us on Friday, October 20, 2017 at 6:30 p.m. in room 208 of the Carl A. Diekhans Center for Industrial Technology (1050 Chilton Circle) building on the campus of Great Basin College. Lois Ports will be giving a presentation about Nevada’s many designated symbols. If you are interested in learning more about both the flora and fauna of our area, you can send an email to BristleconeAudubon@gmail.com to be put on our newsletter mailing list or find us on Facebook under Bristlecone Audubon Chapter.