We know we are approaching fall when we begin noticing clumps of tall fluffy grass called broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus). It’s not really a sedge at all. It’s a warm-season perennial grass.
Some folks call it broom sage, which is incorrect. There is a plant called broom sage that is common in California and Arizona. Strangely, it’s not actually a sage. It’s in the aster
family. Another name for it is scale broom.
When the name broomsedge is mentioned, livestock farmers scowl. Seeing broomsedge in a field means that the soil is probably acidic and infertile. Likely, the pastures have also been overgrazed. In short, land management hasn’t been the greatest.
The result is that this prairie grass is also wasting space that could be utilized by grasses animals like. Most livestock won’t eat broomsedge. Even if they did, it has little nutritional value, especially when mature.
Fertilizing pastures and liming the soil makes other desirable grasses more competitive. Addressing the soil alone won’t take care of the problem.
Broomsedge will still grow under more fertile conditions, so it must be removed. Plants are shallow rooted, so removing them manually isn’t a problem if numbers are small.
Killing broomsedge with herbicides is difficult, and the chemicals often injure or kill desirable species. This is less of a problem in cool-season grasses and legumes like clovers. Stands can be killed with a non-selective chemical like Round-up and then immediately planted with cool-season species.
Broomsedge is a warm-season grass and it doesn’t begin growing until early summer. At that time, it’s too late to plant cool-season grasses or clovers.
Keeping a thick stand of desirable forages can crowd it out. However, soil nutrients, especially phosphorus must be in good supply. Broomsedge will creep into thin places, so overseeding is usually necessary.
Cattle farmers abhor broomsedge, but many others see its benefits. It’s a great conservation grass, because it requires no management. In fact, it grows better on marginal land. It often is the only thing that will grow on strip-mine soils. Without it, erosion would be a major problem in these places.
This range grass is an important species for many nesting birds. It also provides great fall cover for grouse and quail. Plants produce lots of seed, but it’s not a major food source for birds.
Many people like the way it looks, especially when it’s in flower. There are even ornamental cultivars available and they perform well without additional water or fertilizer. Its upright growth habit makes a striking contrast in many perennial gardens. Also, as one might expect, broomsedge is not subject to deer damage.
Broomsedge originally got its name because people used its long stiff stems to make brooms. These sturdy stems make great dried material for floral arrangements too.
Broomsedge has no foraging value for humans. Herbalists have used extracts from the roots to treat back aches. Leaf teas have been used to treat diarrhea and these teas can be used topically to treat minor skin irritations. However, this grass is not a major player among medicinal herbs.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.