Melica nitens (Scribn.) Nutt. ex Piper
Basis for Listing
Melica nitens (three-flowered melic) is a grass of open woods, savannas, and prairies. Unlike most prairie grasses, its distribution is centered in the tall grass prairie of the central states rather than the short-grass prairies of the Great Plains. It is not uncommon in the southern part of its range, but it is considered rare or vulnerable in the northern part of its range, including Minnesota and adjacent states. Melica nitens reaches the northern limit of its range in southeastern Minnesota. Within the state, it is apparently limited to the Root River valley in Fillmore and Houston counties. It was first discovered in 1902 near Whalen and again in 1915 near Rushford, both sites are in Fillmore County. Those populations have not been relocated since their original discovery, and their current status is unknown. Melica nitens was not located again in Minnesota until 1976. Since then, only a handful of additional occurrences have been found, all in similar habitats and all in Houston and Fillmore counties (The Blufflands Subsection). All the populations are small, and all the habitats are remnants of larger habitats that have been fragmented by human activities. The loss of habitat is a critical problem for this species across much of its range. Consequently, M. nitens was listed as a threatened species in Minnesota in 1984.
Melica nitens is a distinctive grass that can be easily identified. The stems are rather tall, often waist-high, and are produced singly or in loose clumps. The leaf sheaths are closed tubular structures, which is unusual; most grasses have open leaf sheaths. The branches within the inflorescence are divergent or sometimes reflexed, each with 5-20 spikelets. Each spikelet has 2-3 bisexual florets. The glumes, which are the lowest structure of the spikelet, are unequal in size and shape, with the lower glume shorter and more ovate than the upper glume. The pedicels (stalks of the spikelets) are sharply bent and hairy. The distal most flower in each spikelet is reduced to a small sterile club-shaped structure called a rudiment (Barkworth 2007).
Early Minnesota records of M. nitens do not include detailed habitat descriptions but imply a sandy, partially wooded habitat. Records since 1915 are from sandy, mesic prairies and prairie-like habitats, rocky bluff prairies and forest openings. Habitats seem to be sunny or only lightly shaded. Soils vary but are mostly rocky or sandy.
Biology / Life History
Melica nitens is a cool-season, loosely bunched, perennial grass. It reproduces only by seeds that are produced in early summer by wind-pollinated flowers. Unlike many native prairie grasses, M. nitens is a cool-season species that will have gone to seed before the characteristic warm-season species accomplish the majority of their growth and reproduction. Mechanisms or vectors for the dispersal of seeds are not known, but seeds are likely spread short distances by small ground foraging mammals or birds.
Conservation / Management
Melica nitens is threatened by the invasion of non-native invasive plants, with Euphorbia esula (leafy spurge) being the most problematic. Efforts to detect and control non-native species in the habitat of M. nitens should be a management priority. Habitats may also be threatened by encroachment of woody plants, native or otherwise. If the woody plants become too dense, they may outcompete M. nitens for light and moisture. Control methods should include mechanical cutting and prescribed dormant season burns. Threats of a more general nature include: road construction, agricultural activities, residential development, and off-road vehicles.
Best Time to Search
The best time to search for Melica nitens is when the reproductive structures are fully developed, from late May through July.
Conservation Efforts in Minnesota
At least four of the known occurrences of M. nitens in Minnesota are in remnant prairie habitats along an abandoned railroad right-of-way that is now part of the Root River State Trail. This may impart some level of protection to the habitat of this species, though no specific conservation efforts have been undertaken to date.
Welby R. Smith (MNDNR), 2021
(Note: all content ©MNDNR)
References and Additional Information
Barkworth, M. E. 2007. Melica. Pages 88-102 in Flora of North America Editorial Committee, editors. Flora of North America north of Mexico. Volume 24. Oxford University Press, New York, New York.
Boyle, W. S. 1945. A cyto-taxonomic study of the North American species of Melica. Madrono 8:1-26.
Rosendahl, C. O., and J. W. Moore. 1947. A new variety of Sedum rosea from southeastern Minnesota and additional notes on the flora of the region. Rhodora 49:197-202.
The Great Plains Flora Association. 1986. Flora of the Great Plains. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence. 1,402 pp.