Wild Georgia: Broomsedge always near

Driving to the Okefenokee Swamp in South Georgia the other day, I stopped at a gas station in Waycross and struck up a conversation with a vacationing British couple headed for the coast.

They asked if I knew what type of tall, tawny-colored grass grew so thickly in the fields that they saw along the highways south of Atlanta. They said the fields literally glowed in the afternoon light and made beautiful pictures. They didn’t know, though, what the grass was. Was it hay, wheat or some other crop?

I racked my brain for an answer. Then, it dawned on me: What the couple had seen was broomsedge, one of the most ubiquitous wild grasses in Georgia.

It is called a sedge but it actually is a native species of perennial bluestem grass (Andropogon virginicus).

Although common in the Southeast, and even an icon of the region, broomsedge may reach its greatest density in the piedmont of Georgia and the Carolinas.

No matter where you live in the piedmont — city or countryside — it likely grows near you. It is common in vacant city lots, power-line rights of way and unmowed roadsides. But it is at its prime in old farm fields, which quickly become covered with broomsedge when abandoned or left to lie fallow.

Under a sunny blue January sky, a field of broomsedge can be an artist’s delight. “When all else is drab and gray in mid-January, there’s nothing quite like that radiant, golden glow of broomsedge in the late afternoon sun,” wrote Bill Hilton of the Hilton Pond Nature Center in York, S.C.

Not everyone sees it that way, though. Most Southern states list broomsedge as a “noxious weed.” Although it is grazed by cattle in the spring and early summer, it is unpalatable when it matures in the fall. Some biologists question its overall value to wildlife, saying it provides little nutrition and other benefits for wild creatures.

Other wildlife experts strongly disagree. The Georgia Wildlife Federation says that broomsedge is “incredibly vital” to wildlife. During the winter, dark-eyed juncos, chipping sparrows, field sparrows, bobwhite quail and other birds hide in the dense, grassy clumps. The birds and white-footed mice and other small rodents dine on broomsedge seeds and leaves when other wild food is unavailable during winter. Some birds use broomsedge for nesting material in spring. In addition, broomsedge helps prevent soil erosion.

The broomsedge fields last only for a while, though. Being an early succession plant, broomsedge will be replaced by pines and other growth after only a few growing seasons. Before you know it, there will be a new forest.

In the sky: The moon will be last quarter Monday, rising about midnight and setting around midday, said David Dundee, astronomer with Tellus Science Museum. Mercury is very low in the east just before sunrise. Venus is low in the west just after dark. Mars rises out of the east just before midnight. Jupiter is high in the east as the sky darkens. Saturn rises out of the east just after midnight and will appear near the moon Monday night.