High Plains Grasses Provide the Palette of Autumn

Oct 25, 2013

Credit hutchrec.com

The palette of autumn colors in western Kansas dazzles me every year.  I know many folks think foliage tours in eastern states reveal the best seasonal color, but I wish they would drive across the prairie with me.  The colors may not be quite so obvious as the hardwood forests in the East, but anyone with a good eye can enjoy our fall hues.

Late rains recently led to a bumper crop of sunflowers that brighten roadside ditches. I don’t know that I have ever seen so many blooms or such vibrant plants this time of year.   A local photographer must agree because I have seen him evenings snapping senior pictures against the lush backdrop of these flowers flanking the railroad tracks.  Between the majestic sunsets and the flowers, I don’t know which is easier on the eye.

Not only did the sunflowers get a boost from those showers.  So did the grasses.  Many of us have heard the old timers’ stories of the grasses growing as tall as a horse’s belly.  This year the big blue stem and the Indian grass would definitely tickle the bellies of buffalo or horses.  If this is how the ditches look in modern times, imagine this prairie before section lines and barbwire divided it into parcels. Consider what we’d see from a red tail hawk’s perspective.  It would look like our section roads stitched multi-color patches of quilt together. 

In addition to the tall grasses growing so tall, they’re also colorful and bound to intensify before winter snows blanket them.  Hints of bluestem’s trademark rust color have already crept up the stem into the native tall and mid grass plants while the tawny hue of the Indian grass heads suggests the color of a lion’s mane.  What we at our house call ditch blue stem waves its pale ecru plume like little apostrophes punctuating the ditches and pastures.

Mixed in with these towering stems you find switch grass and other varieties of native and transplanted grasses.  Switch grass functions in this natural arrangement like baby’s breath in a store bought bouquet, as a filler. Along with that wildly formed plant, look for foxtail, side oats grass and brome to add color and texture to Mother Nature’s arrangements.

While the grasses and forbs feed our eyes at ground level, tree leaves have just begun to succumb to autumn’s magic.  As I drive down the road, I note more than a hint of gold and rust among the leaves.  Sumac and plum bush appendages have also begun to assume their autumnal scarlet.  Locust trees show off brilliant gold and yellow tints.  Mardi Gras costumes couldn’t be more brilliant than these leaves.

From season to season, as nature’s palette mutates and alters, western Kansans can count on a backdrop of beautiful skies ranging from robin’s egg blue to gun barrel gray.  I have wondered from time to time if it isn’t sky tones that set off our grasses and trees so effectively.  Perhaps it is our arid clarity that sharpens the eye’s perception. Despite the reason, Mother Nature rewards us with rich and varied vistas.

Western Kansans may never see the screaming orange and burning scarlet of New England, but we won’t miss it if we take a trip down a country road to enjoy our own leaf peep.  Between sky and earth, we can enjoy autumn’s riches.  I haven’t even mentioned the glory of milo fields and other fall crops.  That is another article.