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Early Wild Rye (Elymus macgregorii), native grass, Hamilton Native Outpost

Early Wild Rye: Native Plant of the Year

Early Wild Rye has been a mystery plant to botanists, but to those who know this grass, it is not mysterious, rather it is a wonderful, native cool season grass.  Here at Hamilton Native Outpost, we think it deserves to be the Native Plant of the Year for 2022.  It has been dubbed the “Early Green-Up Grass”, and the qualities that earn it this name contribute to its usefulness and function.

To see this grass in all its spring-time glory, join us in this video, or see how it responds to December weather in this video.  Lastly, Early Wild Rye makes an appearance in this video that discusses Native Cool Season Grasses and their growth in November for livestock forage.

Early Wild Rye Stats

Latin Name:Elymus macgregorii
Sun:Full Sun to Full Shade
Soil Moisture:Dry to Moist
Life Cycle:Perennial
Bloom Time:May – June
Root System:Fibrous
Functional Diversity Group:Native Cool Season Grass

Wildlife & Early Wild Rye

From greens to seeds to structure, wildlife find many uses for this plant.  When green grass gets hard to find in a native grassland in late fall, winter, and early spring, Early Wild Rye provides a green bite of nutrition.  To some wildlife species, such as deer, rabbits, geese, and elk, a green bite is important.  Then, as the grass begins to reach upward, bloom, and produce seed, it provides early structure as it is one of the earliest plants to reach its mature height in spring.  Some wildlife find value not in the greenery but rather in the seeds.  To ducks, the seeds of Wild Ryes are a tasty morsel.  Mice also delight in these seeds, and in turn, prey animals such as hawks, owls, foxes, and coyotes find tremendous food value in the mice.  Additionally, the lowly esteemed but vitally important part of the food chain, insects, feed on Wild Ryes.  In turn, these insects are a crucially important food for many songbirds, game birds, and bats, especially as these winged friends work to raise their young.  Lastly, this plant is part of the diversity of plants that provides for the countless, unseen lives underground – soil microorganisms.  At first glance these miniscule organisms are not very glamorous.  However, consider for a moment that the microbes feed the earthworms and the earthworms feed the moles and the moles feed any number of other animals ranging from birds to mammals.  Again, while these minute microbes are not worthy of being watched nor hunted, they provide for many other species of wildlife that can be seen and enjoyed.  Also, the benefits that are provided by the microbes to soil health are innumerable and irreplaceable.  While this grass does directly provide food for some animals, it supports the health of so many more because it is a foundational link in the food chain – providing food for those animals that become food for others.

Forage & Early Wild Rye

Any grass with a nickname of “Early Green-Up Grass” has a place as livestock forage.  Not only is it luscious in the spring, it is also green and scrumptious in the fall.  While Early Wild Rye can be found in abundance beneath a canopy of trees, we love it best when it is part of the chain of forages in a Diverse Native Grassland – a pasture with native warm season grasses, native cool season grasses, and native forbs and legumes all mixed together.  These different groups of plants are called functional diversity groups as each group serves a different function in the diverse grassland. This is a recreation of the grasslands that the bison once grazed.  By having all of the plants blended together, the land is able to produce more forage because the solar collector (the plants growing in the soil) is active year-round, and the diversity of plants promotes soil health.  And, because of the soil health benefits, no fertilizer is needed.  Come to think of it, the bison never had a fertilizer buggy following them. 

In a Diverse Native Grassland, Early Wild Rye is one of the first to green up and grow in early spring, and  it is followed by other native cool season grasses as well as some of the native forbs and legumes.  Instead of the forage production ending as summer begins, the diversity of plants in this grassland provides a chain of forages.  Each functional diversity group has its time to shine.  As the temperatures climb through the summer, and the cool season grass growth withers, there is no notice because the native warm season grasses and other forbs and legumes, the next link in the forage chain, are growing with all their might.  But even this phenomenal growth is chilled as the temperatures fall and the days begin to shorten.  So, once again in autumn, the Early Wild Rye and other native cool season grasses, forbs, and legumes complete the forage chain.  This forage chain is that which the bison loved, and your cattle will

Landscaping & Early Wild Rye

As the dull brownness of winter drags on, Early Wild Rye begins to wake up under a canopy of leafless trees.  The result is a beautiful and invigorating sight – green grass stretching as far as the eye can see.  It makes an impressive visual statement, and with it comes the promise of spring.  By May it is racing to make seed heads, by July it begins to take on the appearance of a ripe wheat field, and then it quickly melts down, just in time for the cooler temperatures and shorter days of fall that trigger it to turn green once again.  But the falling leaves of the trees partially conceal the Early Wild Rye until again in late winter it becomes a sea of rejuvenating green.  In nature, this grass is often found in almost pure stands, but it could possibly be paired with a smattering of strong, perennial wildflowers such as Purple Coneflower, Sweet Black-eyed Susan, Maximillian and Oxeye Sunflowers, Rosin Weed, Cup Plant, Prairie Dock, Compass Plant, Yellow Ironweed, Swamp and Common Milkweeds, or Prairie Blazing Star.  But whether alone beneath the trees or sharing with a few wildflowers, this grass, under the naked trees of late winter, is sure to revive the spirits.

Restoration & Early Wild Rye

Perhaps this grass is not well known because it has often been classified as one of the other Wild Rye species and not considered to have its own identity.  However, it is quite distinguishable.  It is shorter than most, has a bushy, erect seed head with sizeable awns but the awns are not curved, and it is, of course, earlier than all of the others to both green up and make seed.   Nature’s design for this plant seems to be twofold.  Early Wild Rye’s most eye-catching appearance is when it forms nearly pure stands beneath a heavy canopy of trees.  Like many herbaceous woodland plants, it greens up before the trees leaf out and completes most of its life cycle before the trees begin to get priority on the sunlight and moisture.  These attractive appearances are often seen in river bottoms – the grass tolerates flooding well – but it also occurs in the uplands.   The second design for this plant is being one part of many to make a whole.  It grows as part of native grasslands alongside many other plants, especially as part of the disturbance scene.  In this role it can be found in anything from full sun to shade.  In this design, there is real beauty as the shallower rooted native cool season grasses and some wildflowers begin to use the abundant moisture of springtime and then the deep-rooted native warm season grasses and other wildflowers reach to great depths in the soil to continue the symphony of the grassland.  Then again when the abundant rains usually return in fall, the shallower rooted, cooler-loving cool season plants return.

In all of its designs, this grass is part of the native grasslands’ ability to provide for ecosystem services including abundant and diverse wildlife.  Another benefit to these ecosystems, which is possibly less understood because it happens in the dark underground, literally, is the plant’s impact on soil health.  Being an early-growing grass, Early Wild Rye is able to provide earlier soil health benefits than most plants can as the grassland is waking up.  Its early green leaves soften the impact of the abundant spring raindrops on the soil, helping to diminish soil capping and erosion, especially following a controlled burn.  The early green up also mean that the roots are active earlier than most other roots.  These roots begin to cycle nutrients from last year’s growth before the nutrients can be lost (potentially becoming pollution) or tied up in the soil.  And still yet, this plant’s effect on soil health continues as it matures and falls to the ground only to become food for the soil’s microorganisms.  This process recycles the nutrients that the plant secured to another plant that is actively growing, and the grass’s brown, mature, stemmy growth helps balance the carbon to nitrogen ratio of the soil.  The impact of a healthy soil is far-reaching, even to the health of our streams and aquatic ecosystems because if the soil is healthy, the rain infiltration is high, meaning that the springs and streams are fed slowly rather than in a massive, destructive flood.  For all of the benefits of this early-growing plant, it is worth learning this species, observing how it fits into the remnant grasslands, and using it in restorations.

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