Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
February, 2005
Regional Report

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This invasive fountain grass is ready and waiting to crowd out native species. (Photo by Barbara Tellman)

Invasive Grasses Threaten Desert Plants

Southwestern deserts are admired worldwide for their unique plant species: saguaro, ocotillo, and compass barrel cacti, green-barked palo verde trees, and of course, spring wildflowers that carpet the desert floor with glorious color. However, when invasive species sneak into the mix and grab a foothold, they wreak havoc on the native ecosystem.

Watch Out for These Two
Two such culprits are buffelgrass (Pennisetum ciliare) and fountain grass (P. setaceum). Both are native to Africa. Buffelgrass was introduced as cattle forage; fountain grass was commonly added to landscapes because of its attractive, flowing seedheads. Both species are spreading insidiously across the desert, crowding out native species and reducing food and shelter for native animals.

Buffelgrass is a low-growing bunchgrass. It can be found across undisturbed desert, as well as in empty lots and along roadsides. The plants grow close together, forming a continuous fuel line for wildfires after the plants inevitably dry out.

Native plants, on the other hand, grow some distance apart from each other, so they don't compete for scarce resources. They also don't create a non-stop fuel supply, so they didn't evolve to withstand wildfire. Since the introduction and spread of buffelgrass, recent wildfires have devastated swaths of once pristine desert.

What Can You Do?
If these plants grow on your property or along the roadside entrance to it, dig them out and dispose of them. Watch for seedlings after rain and pull them before they establish. Replace fountain grass in the landscape with an attractive clumping grass from the genus Muhlenbergia. Muhlies have attractive seedheads, but are not invasive.

The Sonoran Desert Weedwackers volunteer to remove buffelgrass from sensitive plant areas, such as Saguaro National Park near Tucson. Check with local native plant groups and conservation societies to see what can be done to slow the flow of invasive species in your region.

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