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needle grass

A plant producing seeds which stuck tight and could work their way through skin and clothing.

Has any body experienced any loss of sheep from barb or needle grass? – H.M. Thompson of the Experimental Forest Farm, from 1882 Lake Preston (Dakota Territory) Times

Ma had never seen a grass like it. The grass heads were like barley beards, except that they were twisted, and they ended in a seed pod an inch long, with a point as fine and hard as a needle, and a shaft covered with stiff hairs pointing backward… The stiff hair followed the needle-point easily, but kept it from being pulled back, and the four-inch-long, screw-like beard followed, twisting and pushing the needle-point farther in. (See Little Town on the Prairie, Chapter 9, “Blackbirds”)

Laura Ingalls Wilder makes this grass seem quite sinister, but needle grass is planted as a forage plant. It’s only nasty (and usually avoided by animals) in late summer when the seeds are dry and dispersing. It can do exactly what Laura wrote, though; it can screw itself into your clothing and prick you like a pin.

Needle-and-thread grass (also called porcupine, panic, or spear grass) is a member of the genus Stipa. For some reason, Latin names of many of the grasses were changed a few years ago, so many sources have switched to the newer genus nomenclature of Hesperostipa. Stipa spartea, Stipa comata, Stipa curtiseta, and Stipa viridula are all needle grasses with charasteristics Laura describes.

Needle grass has been planted on the Ingalls Homestead, along with other native grasses such as buffalograss and bluestem. I’ve picked seed heads of needlegrass and placed them on the shoulder of my t-shirt; the seed pods stick like velcro. The awns twisted as they dried and the seed heads worked their way through the fabric when I forgot they were there. You remember them quickly when you think you’ve been stung by something: “Ouch!”

True Spanish needles (not a grass) traditionally meant Bidens frondosa (or Bidens pilosa), a white-flowering aster also known as common beggar-ticks, stick-tight, bur-marigold, stick-seed, and pitchforks. It was a weed in wet places – remember that the Ingallses’ homestead was next to Big Slough – and it was troublesome because of the barbed black seeds which stuck to clothing and the hair of domestic animals. A single plant could produce upwards of a thousand seeds, easily dispersed. It was said to be a special nuisance to sheep men, and the question asked of Kingsbury County farmers in 1882 indicates that something, be in Spanish needles or needle grass, had been a problem locally. In 1882, the Lake Henry Farmer’s Club recommended that prairie grass was left until it had a good start, then burn over it in order to kill the seeds of needle grass.

Did Laura Ingalls Wilder refer to the grass or the flower? Or both?


Spanish needle grass (LTP 19; PG)