Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 298-A   March 16, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

It is a remarkable fact that, of all our cultivated food plants and all our domesticated animals, only the dog was found in both the eastern and western hemispheres before Europeans reached the Americas. From the Old World, too, we have obtained all of the grasses and legumes most important as plants for pasture, forage crops, erosion control and turf-- turf for lawns around our homes and public buildings, or in parks, golf courses, airports and cemeteries. The most commonly known and widely-used of all such grasses, especially in the north-central and northeastern states, is Kentucky Bluegrass.

To be sure, there were hundreds of kinds of native grasses in North America. In the prairies and oak openings of the Middle West there were the big bluest, the little bluest and many other species. The Great Plains were carpeted with buffalo grass, the grama grasses and such low-growing but highly nutritious plants. Along the Atlantic coast, however, although there were natural openings in the stream valleys and clearings where the Indians had burned the woodlands for corn patches or for easier hunting, the first colonists found amazingly few forage plants suitable for the livestock they brought with them. Wild rye and a few other native grasses grew high and thick in most places, and cattle ate them greedily in summer, but they had little food value as hay to carry livestock through a winter. Although the coarse reeds and sedges abundant in fresh-water and salt marshes, were also used Sometimes cattle were slaughtered to keep them from starvation.

Such animals were fed on shipboard, of course, and their manure and any surplus forage were unloaded with them. As a result, English grass - - a term including both bluegrass and white clover -- soon began to appear and spread; also other European grasses, and weeds. The European plant we call timothy was widely grown for hay in England, and its seeds were carried to several other colonies by one Timothy Hanson. Other colonists imported seeds of grasses, white and red clover.

In the Ohio valley there were extensive natural openings in the forests and much richer pastures of native grasses than along the Atlantic seaboard. Before the Revolution, these attracted settlers. When "Mad Anthony" crossed the Alleghenies to defeat the British and Indians at Fallen Timbers in 1794, his mounted troops brought forage with them. Bluegrass soon flourished where they camped in the Scioto valley of Ohio. Subsequently, two brothers named Rennick -- were apparently responsible for the introduction of this plant into what is known as the Bluegrass State. Its bluegrass region, from which comes nearly all of our commercial bluegrass seed, is a well-watered gently-rolling plateau with fertile limestone soils. There are similar regions in Virginia and Tennessee but in Kentucky the landowners have adhered to a pasture- type agriculture, never allowing much more than a small portion of the land to be cultivated for corn, tobacco or other crops.

Kentucky bluegrass requires plenty of rainfall, a rich well-drained soil, and does best on limestone soil or where nitrogen, limestone and phosphorus fertilizers are added as needed. Canada Bluegrass, which cannot otherwise compete with it, does well on poor soils and withstands drought or other unfavorable conditions. It can be distinguished by its very flat stems which cannot readily be rolled between the fingers. Of the 200 or more species of bluegrass, seven are well known and have an important place in agriculture but "Kentucky Blue" is king of them all.

There are about 2 million seeds per pound and almost as many colonels.

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