Buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides) is characteristic of a shortgrass prairie plant, only reaching two to eight inches in height. It may grow upright, or its stems may lie on the ground and curl up toward the tips. They are slender and solid.
The leaf blades are fine-textured, being less than 1/8 inch wide. They reach one to five inches in length. The blades are also flat and sparsely hairy. They grow from loose sheaths with a few marginal hairs near the collar.
Individual buffalo grass plants may be either male or female. The male plant is taller and grows an obvious branching flower known as a panicle. This flaglike panicle bears 2 to 5 branches, each 1/4 to 1/2 inch long. Each branch has 6 to 12 spikelets and two florets per spikelet. The female plant is less obvious, as it tends to be hidden in the grass and bears a peculiar flower remarkably like a burr.
Buffalo grass produces creeping stems or stolons that grow along the surface of the ground and root at the nodes. The stolons vary from 2 to 24 inches in length.
Buffalo grass is native to the United States and can be found across Kansas, typically in association with blue grama grass. It grows in prairies and lawns with well-drained soil, preferably with a medium to fine texture and a fair amount of loam. However, it can adapt to clay soils provided they are not excessively wet. It does not tolerate shade.
Buffalo grass is a warm-season perennial. It starts growing in mid-spring, using stolons to spread. It flowers from May to June. Although extremely drought-tolerant, it will go dormant during an extended dry period. The leaves turn reddish brown after the first fall freeze.
As its name suggests, buffalo grass was once the primary food of the bison herds. It also has an important role in forming the sod of the shortgrass prairie.
Buffalo grass is an important forage species for most types of livestock in the Great Plains. Even in the winter, it maintains enough nutritional value to support grazing animals. It can withstand overgrazing better than most native grass species due to its low growth habit.
Because of its sod-forming capabilities, buffalo grass is an excellent choice for erosion control projects.
While the initial cost of seed may be daunting, buffalo grass is becoming a popular choice for turf in areas where water shortages make irrigating a lawn impractical. Varieties selected to contain only the shorter female plants are typically used for this purpose.
To establish a buffalo grass lawn:
- Seed at a rate of one to two pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet and plant in April or May, perhaps in combination with blue grama for a lawn that will stay greener longer throughout the year.
- Allow two to three weeks for the seed to germinate.
- Pull weeds by hand to eliminate competition.
- Respect the low-maintenance tendencies of this species for best results. Frequent watering and fertilizing will only damage it, as it is used to thriving under adverse conditions.
- Mow every three or four weeks at a height of three to four inches, leaving the clippings on the lawn to return a moderate amount of nutrition to the soil (buffalo grass does not form thatch, so this will not hurt it).
Buffalo grass makes a good ground cover for a wildflower meadow, as it is very low-maintenance. In this role, it only needs to be mowed once a year in the spring to a height of three to four inches.
There are no known hazards associated with buffalo grass.
The leaves of the buffalo grass and the blue grama are very similar in appearance, and the male flowers of the former also look much like the flowers of the latter. The two species can be readily distinguished by their growth habit, however. Buffalo grass grows in sod-forming mats, while grama tends to grow in bunches. This is partly because buffalo grass produces many stolons, unlike grama. Harder to spot, but also a reliable characteristic, is the fact that buffalo grass produces male and female flowers on separate plants. This is not a trait of blue grama.
Hairy grama is visually almost identical to blue grama, so the same identification pointers apply.
Parts of a Grass Plant: A Glossary
Definitions for technical terms used in this post.