City Cast

Cheatgrass: An Infamous Idaho Plant

Blake Hunter
Blake Hunter
Posted on July 18   |   Updated on July 19
Right now, cheatgrass is drying and priming to become fuel for fires. (Getty)

Right now, cheatgrass is drying and priming to become fuel for fires. (Getty)

In Idaho, cheatgrass (also known as downy brome and scientifically as Bromus tectorum) is as infamous as a plant can get.

Introduced to western North America in the mid-1800s from the Mediterranean region by colonizing Europeans, the plant is single-handedly responsible for altering much of Idaho’s desert, from a healthy sagebrush steppe ecosystem (with lots of native shrubs, bushes, and grasses other than sagebrush) to a monoculture of grass that dies by midsummer and turns the land into a tinderbox.

There are a few key characteristics of cheatgrass that make it such an invasive species.

First, it produces an absolutely incredible amount of seeds, up to 500 seeds per plant in a season, all of which are engineered to burrow into materials, including flesh, to be transported to fertile ground.

Second, it’s an early riser, becoming one of the first plants to grow in the spring, which not only gives it a headstart to take up space, but also allows it to soak up a lot of water from the first foot of soil — water that would normally be shared by other plants later in the season.

All of this means that it can take one fire to turn a diverse hillside of native shrubs and grasses into a wasteland that’s almost exclusively home to cheatgrass.

While cheatgrass is a scourge, there’s also some research into different ways to kill cheatgrass and systematically improve native plant’s abilities to compete. What can you do? Stay away from cheatgrass as much as possible, and avoid disturbing soil around cheatgrass, which helps prevent seeds from germinating.

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