Elephant grass is the elephant in the room--or, in this case, the field.
Scientifically known as Miscanthus, and commonly called plume grass, maiden grass, Eulalia grass, and Chinese or Japanese silver grass, elephant grass has been popping up all over the Island. This nonnative plant, along with its many ornamental cultivars, has become very popular in our yards and gardens. Increasingly, however, I am seeing it along trails and roadsides and in open fields.
Miscanthus has escaped into the wilds!
It got there, in a sense, by “running,” utilizing root-like underground runners called rhizomes that allow it to spread. Miscanthus can also propagate through its seed heads, which are plentiful, and are in fact one of the features that endear this perennial grass to landscapers and homeowners.
But don’t get charmed by its fluffy appearance. While it may be attractive to some, and popular or fashionable in certain circles, it is troublesome when it wanders, and will rapidly outcompete our native (and beloved) grasses. The sale, trade or importation of a few varieties of Miscanthus has been banned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since 2009. Plant natives instead; switch grass and little bluestem are great Island grasses.
If you do have this grass on your property, please watch it with an eagle eye. Keep all Miscanthus plants confined to reduce spreading, remove and properly dispose of seed heads, and be sure to dig out escapees.
Invasive plants are not all evil, just in the wrong place. Miscanthus is much loved in Asia, and its flowers symbolically celebrate the fall harvest. Known as susuki, Miscanthus can be used as a yellow dye, and its stems are woven into thatched roofs. In a pinch, the grass’s thick core can be used as chopsticks.
Silver grass may have another silver lining: It just may be the next big thing in biofuels. Watch out, corn and soybeans, Miscanthus is on the move!
Efforts to reduce U.S. fossil fuel consumption have led to increased use of ethanol, made primarily from corn and soybeans. Recent studies have shown that Miscanthus grass is more efficient and a better choice for ethanol production. To offset 20 per cent of our gasoline use with ethanol, corn would take 25% of U.S. croplands out of food production. Miscanthus would need less land, using only 9.3% of existing croplands to produce the same amount of ethanol.
Furthermore, Miscanthus can produce two and a half times more ethanol than corn and requires fewer chemical and mechanical imports. It is also tolerant of poor soils and removes carbon from the air, sequestering it in the ground, a plus in terms of climate change.
There might be a place for Miscanthus in our world; it just isn’t on Martha’s Vineyard. Here, it is misapplied, misplaced, and miscast. One could say that it is a mistake to plant Miscanthus, but I would insist that “There are no mistakes in life, only lessons.”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.