A couple of years ago I spent the summer in Bisbee house-sitting for some friends. The house was at one end of High Road, a street suspended on a ledge halfway up the northern slope of Tombstone canyon. There are two ways to get to High Road from Bisbee’s main drag, Tombstone Canyon Road. To drive up to High Road, you have to make a sharp turn on Clausen and simultaneously ascend a steep slope. The other way is for hardy pedestrians; a steep series of seventy or so steps will take you up to and right on past the house I was staying in.
At the bottom of those steps lived a couple with young children. The wife could often be noticed tending to her various garden plots along the steps, and I frequently encountered her in my peregrinations. One day she was down at the bottom of the steps and and after I had descended the steps we fell into conversation about plants, gardening, and such.
The woman drew my attention to some clumps of fuzzy-topped grass growing between the sidewalk and the street. She said:
“Larry, pick some of the tops from that grass there, crush them, and tell me what they smell like, okay?”
Far be it from me to resist such a request! I picked some of the seedheads, smelled them, and said:
“Damn! It smells just like blueberries!”
“Yeah, they do, don’t they? When I first moved to Bisbee fifteen years ago a friend told me about this grass.”
“What kind of grass is it?”
“I really don’t know, but it grows all over town!”
I tried to do a Google search, using such terms as “grass that smells like blueberries”, but my results were clogged with people’s remarks about varieties of marijuana which smell like blueberries. Evidently quite a few varieties of pot smell like that!
This summer I asked Cado Daily, a Cochise County extension agent (and one of my friends and musical cohorts) what she thought that grass might be. She said:
“Oh, I know that grass! it’s one of the beard-grasses, a species of Andropogon!”
That was just the lead I needed. After some better-directed Google searches I found that the grass has been removed from the old Andropogon genus and placed in a new one. The grass is native and it’s common all over the Southwest, all the way from Texas to California. One common name for it is “Cane Beargrass”, and the grass currently rejoices in the Latin cognomen Bothriochloa barbinodis. Nowhere did I find a mention of the grass’s blueberry odor.
Some people I’ve talked with in Bisbee claim that the grass really smells more like Blueberry Pop-Tarts than real blueberries. I think that is a distinction without a difference, as Blueberry Pop-Tarts do have some real blueberries in their gummy filling. Processed foods are most often made with small Low-bush Blueberries harvested in the Northeast US and the Canadian Maritime Provinces.
This morning I went out in the courtyard and photographed a Cane Beargrass seedhead I had picked the other day out in the valley.
It’s always a pleasure to learn something new about the native plants which share this region with us!