Photographer: Forest and Kim Starr Affiliation: Starr Environmental Source:www.bugwood.org Copyright: CC BY 3.0
Buffelgrass (Cenchrus ciliaris) is a perennial shrub-like grass from the family Poaceae. On average adult plants reach a height of 1.5 feet and a width of 3 feet. Immature forms of buffelgrass look similar to bunchgrass because of the condensed appearance. Larger adults plants split at the nodes as they grow developing a messy unorganized appearance with leaves extending multiple directions. New leaves and flowers are formed at the nodes of each grass blade allowing for extensive seed production following rain. Flowers are usually reddish brown, but occasionally stramineous. Each flower is covered with small spiked or burrs packed in a dense formation to facilitate seed dispersal by attaching to animal fur or human clothing.
Buffelgrass is known for its high drought tolerance and tendency to grow in dense clumps. These characteristics allow the invasive plant to crowd native plants and compete for available resources. Taller desert plants are eradicated by the establishment of buffelgrass because the native plants lost the competition for water. Smaller vegetation suffers from a lack of sunlight and prevented seed dispersal when buffelgrass becomes established because of crowding. In addition to being drought tolerant, buffelgrass is adapted for regular burning and supports extremely hot fires, causing further death to native plant species that haven't adapted for regular fires of high temperatures. Once buffelgrass invades an area, it quickly becomes a monoculture and plant diversity is lost.
Blooming begins in the summer with seed production at its highest mid-summer and the end of seed production occurs in the fall. Seeds are produced in a high abundance with flowers occurring at nearly every node of the plant. Approximately 260,000 seeds are produced per pound of buffelgrass with a moderate dispersal rate, but high seed viability once it reaches the ground. Vegetative reproduction occurs slowly and is rarely seen in buffelgrass.
Introduced in the 1930's to the United States as a livestock forage, buffelgrass did not survive very well in Arizona. Several experimental plantings occurred from the 1930"s to the 1950"s with little success. Buffelgrass was rare when surveyed in 1984, but by 1994 it was expanding rapidly for unknown reasons. today it is seen nearly everywhere within the southern portion of Arizona.
Africa, Indonesia, Asia and the Middle East
U.S. Habitat:As a desert plant adapted for drought, buffelgrass is currently found growing in disturbed areas such as roadsides in ditches or along medians. Within the Sonoran desert, buffelgrass can be found along hillsides on southern facing slopes, in open fields, and steep rocky hillsides. Although it is characteristic of a warm weather grass, it has been able to survive in northern states.
U.S. Present: AZ, CA, FL, HI, LA, MO, NM, NY, OK, PR, TX
Buffelgrass is controlled most effectively by applying herbicides or manually removing plants. Volunteer groups like Sonoran Desert Weedwackers are responsible for controlling infestations in Tuscon Mountains Pima County Park by manual removal of the plant. Disturbed areas along streets in urban environments are the next target for Arizona. Wildlife officials and volunteers hoping to control buffelgrass. Some ranchers still use buffelgrass for livestock forage, but it has since been proven economically ineffective in feeding livestock by comparison to alternative food sources.
Find out how you can help: Visit the Southern Arizona Buffelgrass Coordination Center
Tellman, Barbara (ed.). 2002. Invasive Exotic Species in the Sonoran Desert Region. University of Arizona Press.
Woodward, Susan L., and Joyce Ann. Quinn. 2011. Bufflegrass. Encyclopedia of Invasive Species: From Africanized Honey Bees to Zebra Mussels. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood. 435-39. Print.
Yetman, D. and A. Burquez. 1994. Buffelgrass - Sonoran Desert nightmare. the Arizona Riparian Council newsletter. 7(3):8-10.