You might be surprised to know that John James Audubon spent a goodly part of the summer of 1843 in North Dakota in and around Fort Union Trading Post. As you might expect he and his associates spent much of their time documenting the flora and fauna of the area.
An entry in Audubon’s journal from Friday July 7, 1843 recently caught my attention. Anyone who has spent any appreciable time on the North Dakota prairie during early July, will surely relate to it. And I quote…”We passed through some grasses with bearded shafts, so sharp that they penetrated our moccasins and entered our feet and ankles, and in the shade of a stumpy ash-tree we took off our moccasins and drew the spines out.”
No doubt those sharp bearded shafts were the seeds of needlegrasses. I have heard several North Dakotans that grew up on farms and ranches refer to these plants are “spear grass.” As kids they would have little spear grass fights, throwing the seeds (or little spears) at each other, with the seeds sticking to their clothes.
The needlegrasses (we have four species native to our state) are major components of North Dakota’s mixed grass prairie. They are cool-season bunch grasses that grow to 1-3 feet in height. It is likely that Audubon and his companions walked though lots of needle and thread (Hesperostipa comata). Porcupine grass (Hesperostipa spartea) and shortbristle needle and thread (Hesperostipa curtiseta) are also possibilities. And it may well have been a combination of the species.
These grasses are known for their hard, rather cylindrical or tapered, sharp pointed seeds, the length of which varies by species but is in range of about a quarter to three quarters of an inch long. Attached to the blunt end of the seed is a long awn or bristle-like structure which may be from 4-7 inches long and perhaps curled depending upon the species. Even today while walking through a pasture or tract of prairie when the seeds of needlegrasses are mature, at some point, one is bound to have to stop occasionally to remove them from their clothing.
So if you walk a pasture or tract of prairie and have to stop to remove the needlegrass seeds from your clothes, you can reflect on this historical perspective: John James Audubon had to do that too!