Great Basin Wildrye

Something you should know about wildrye

  • March 06, 2015
  • Posted by David Stout - BSWC

A clump of grass stands tall out on the range. Its myriad stems rattle and sway together in the wind. The seeds it held last season are nearly spent. They are covered by the snow that lays in a crust on the ground. It is wintertime and across the prairie one can see several of these clumps emerging from the snow like islands. Nothing seems to live or move unless conjured by wind, but this is not so.

Our clump of wildrye has been growing upwards, laying down roots, and dropping seed for many seasons. Its upward growth, at 4 feet, seems a great accomplishment, but the greatest effort of its struggle for life has been downward, not upward. By comparison, the world above the snow is desolate, however, directly underfoot is a world of life unseen and unknown. The roots of this prodigious plant have grown to a depth of 60 inches below the surface and reach 30 inches horizontally.

Its roots reach far enough to find the water table where the temperature is less variable and more forgiving than the surface. For months these roots have served as a conduit for moisture to move upward. Because of this exchange the temperature between the surface and the water table is also steadier and more amicable to life. All orders of life occupy the sub-surface. Some are dormant now that is winter and others continue to wind away unaware of a world where wind sweeps or light shines.

As the earth tilts its northern hemisphere more directly into the sun our part of the world begins to warm. With this the snow begins to melt and flow underneath the crust. A mouse’s trail forms a pathway for water to run below our clump of grass. Gravity, always exerting its power, begins to drag the water beneath the surface. Small pores between particles of soil allow droplets of to become suspended for a time in the earth. These pockets are glued together by the billions of tiny organisms living in the soil at all times.

The changing temperatures signal to the plant and it begins to grow upwards. Being native to the range and flourishing in the cooler seasons, this plant has a head start on its neighbors. As it grows up to capture sunlight, it is continually placing its roots into the small pores between soil particles or wedging them between larger pieces and breaking them apart. In the spring time an opportunistic elk cow eats the growth knowing that it holds good protein.

This is no setback; our plant begins to shed away its older root growth below the earth and in turn grow ever vigorously upward. The roots that die readily become a meal for the creatures, often inconceivably small, that occupy the world under our plant. They are detrivores - the recyclers living in the soil- and quickly turn the cell walls of the dead roots into carbon that other plants can use. They glue together the many tunnels descending through the earth where the roots once grew. Moisture and air are exchanged from the surface to the depths of these subterranean tunnels.

From one of these tunnels a beetle emerges and furiously begins cutting seeds into pieces. It carries them underground where they begin to decay. Fungal strands called hyphae make their way into the decaying organic matter. Nutrients are then transferred away along a chain of these strands. This cycle will fertilize our plant for the remaining summer, autumn, and seasons to come. The strands growing between the roots of our plant will help to hold more moisture in the soil and provide refuge to even more life.

All this takes place in a vast web of life just a few cubic feet below the surface. This web is a tremendously busy system in which countless organisms grow, tunnel, move, consume, exchange, live, and die. In one square meter of soil one can find billions of creatures: nematodes, mites, insects, worms, snails, slugs, and even mammals. Most of them will spend their entire lives in the earth. When winter comes again to lay snow across the prairie, our tuft of basin wildrye will not be by any measure lonely.


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