Invasive Species Spotlight: Japanese Stiltgrass

By Abby Pointer, MNA Intern

Microstegium_viminium_specimenAt first glance, Japanese stiltgrass appears to be an innocent, pleasant-looking plant. Most wouldn’t even give the grass a single thought if they were to encounter it. In a sad reality, however, that “irreproachable” grass is quite the opposite. This invasive species chokes out the wildlife around it, and grows and spreads at an alarming rate. It decreases biodiversity and forces animals and plants alike out of their natural habitats. It is widely thought that this species is among one of the most dangerous invasives, as it has spread throughout the country very quickly in relatively little time.

The grass was introduced in Tennessee in the early 1900s through its use as a packing material. It is native to Japan, China, central Asia, and India. Since then, it has spread rapidly to the east, and has started to make its way into the Midwest.

Like other invasive plant species, Japanese stiltgrass is spread with the unintentional aid of humans and animals. The small seeds latch onto fur and clothing, or are carried by the wind. The seeds can survive for up to five years in the soil. The stiltgrass can cross and self fertilize, producing up to 1,000 seeds per individual plant. Most animals avoid eating the plant, leaving it to grow with little to no controlling factors.

The stiltgrass is most often found in shaded areas that are often subject to soil disturbances such as tilling or flooding. It is found along roadways, in floodplains, along hiking paths, as well as in damp woodlands. It’s not picky when it comes to the acidity of the soil it inhabits, though it prefers the soil to be fertile. When in direct sunlight, it doesn’t grow as quickly as it normally could. Its growth is also slowed when near stagnant bodies of water. The grass can also infiltrate residential areas, and is often found in flower beds, lawns, and parks.

JPSGrass identification is notoriously tricky, but thankfully, Japanese stiltgrass has a variety of distinct features for people to identify it by. First off, each plant can have multiple weak stems that branch near the base of the plant. The stems are smooth, and can be green, brown, or purple. The leaves are two to four inches long, and about half an inch in length. They’re pointed on both ends, and have off-centered, silver, ridges. They are widely spread out on the stem. The roots are thin, and weak. They are very easy to pull out of the ground because they do not grow very deep into the soil. Aerial rootlets are present along nodes near the base of the stem – these stilt-like features are what gives the plant its common name of “stiltgrass”. The plants grow flowers in late summer through early fall, and the flowers have a few spikes.

Japanese stiltgrass can get up to about six feet tall, though many plants tend to be between one to three feet in height. The taller plants usually prop themselves up on other plants or trees, or they lay flat against the ground. During the autumn, the tops of the plants turn purple or brown, and in the winter the thatch turns an orange color.

While keeping Japanese stiltgrass under control and preventing it from spreading further may seem like a daunting task, it is undoubtedly a necessary one for the well-being of many ecosystems. Within recent years this invasive has spread to northern Indiana, and last year it was found for the first time in Michigan, in Washtenaw County. Be sure not to get it confused with common look alikes such as Whitegrass, Nimblewill, Basketgrass, Deer tongue, Smartweed, or Crabgrass!

Eddmaps MV distribution as of July 2018

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MSU Students Make a Difference at Goose Creek Grasslands

Eugene and Brockton hard at work at the sanctuary

Eugene and Brockton hard at work at the sanctuary

Where would you expect to find a group of about 30 college and graduate students on cold, snowy Saturday morning in mid-February? If the group is Dr. Emily Grman’s restoration ecology class, you might find them at MNA’s Goose Creek Grasslands Nature Sanctuary. While some of their classmates were still lying warmly in bed, Dr. Grman’s students were wielding loppers, pruning saws, and PVC herbicide applicators against glossy buckthorn to further the restoration of the prairie fen at Goose Creek.

Restoration at Goose Creek has been a lengthy progress. In 2003, MNA’s former stewardship director Sherri Laier began efforts by removing glossy buckthorn, an invasive shrub, from along the Cement City Highway. The shrub had colonized a spoil pile from a drainage improvement project and had already aggressively invaded portions of the fen. The shrub grows rapidly, produces many berries, and both shades out native vegetation as well as preventing the accumulation of enough fuel to carry a fire.

Fire is the main process by which prairie fens were maintained in earlier times. Fires set by Native Americans would spread from surrounding uplands (usually oak savanna) into the fen, and rejuvenate the rich layer of sedges, grasses, and wildflowers that make prairie fens both picturesque as well as biologically rich. Fire also sets back shrubs, both native and non-native, which, absent periodic disturbance, will tend to expand in fens.

MNA conducted the first prescribed burn at Goose Creek in 2004, after native vegetation bounced back in the space previously occupied by glossy buckthorn. Since then, nine additional prescribed burns have been conducted, covering most of the sanctuary.

In early April of this year, two more burns are planned at Goose Creek. One of those burns will take place where the MSU students were hard at work clearing buckthorn.

Students add to a pile of cut buckthorn.

Students add to a pile of cut buckthorn.

Glossy buckthorn is killed by cutting the shrub near to the ground, and then applying concentrated herbicide to the stem, which is taken to the roots. This is a precise method of delivering herbicide to the plant. The cut buckthorn branches are collected in piles which can be burned either separately or during a prescribed burn.

Students were rewarded with a nice harbinger of Spring – the cry of sandhill cranes – despite the cold temperatures. Students also saw bluebirds, horned larks, and abundant praying mantis egg cases. Several students expressed interest in helping with the prescribed burns.

MNA’s regional stewardship organizer Matt Schultz would like to thank the students for helping out at Goose Creek, Dr. Grman for organizing the trip, and regular volunteers Eugene Lidster, Ken Ross, Mike Roys and Heather Smith, who helped form the students into effective restoration strike teams.

The group after a hard day's work!

MNA expects to conduct prescribed burns at Goose Creek in early April. With usual weather conditions (rain in April) the process occurrs surprising rapidly, with the most obvious evidence of a prescribed burn gone just two weeks after the burn takes place. The sanctuary is worth a visit any time, but it is especially rewarding to observe the resurgence of native vegetation from a blackened landscape.

Dr. Emily Grman is a postdoctoral associate in Lars Brudvig’s lab at MSU, interested in the restoration of Michigan prairies. In an upcoming blog post, she will write about her research comparing the plant diversity at prairie remnants (some of which included MNA sanctuaries) to prairie reconstructions.