Harvestable perennials may be in the future

What does Craig Freeman see outside his office window?

"Electrical transformers," he laughs.

What a waste. Freeman could name just about any flower, grass, tree or other plant he saw out there.

Amid the transformers, a few grasses do sprout. But the fescue and bluegrass aren't Kansas natives.

To see those, Freeman, a curator at Kansas University's McGregor Herbarium, walks a couple of blocks uphill. There, on a steep slope, are patches of big bluestem, little bluestem and Indian grass that have escaped the mower.

With spring here, it's worth remembering that about 70 percent of Kansas' tallgrass prairie has disappeared since the state was settled.

Kansans have replaced native species with grasses that most of us don't think of as grasses, says Freeman, who's helping to teach a KU continuing education course this month on the Kansas landscape.

It's easy to imagine that wheat is a grass. In fact, it's the state's No. 1 variety, Freeman says. But corn? Yeah, it's a grass, too.

So what is a grass? First, it's a plant whose stem is mostly hollow � until you get to a point where a blade spikes out from it. There, a little pith fills the hollow and strengthens the stem.

As your eye moves up the stem, the blades come off opposite sides. Grass has a relatively small flower � at least compared with a second great category of plants in Kansas: the forbs.

There are three or four times as many forb species as there are grasses, including, for example, most prairie wildflowers.

There are two giant families of forbs. The composites, including the sunflower and its relatives, are one type. The legumes, or beans, are the other.

Add the grasses, composites and legumes together, and you've got about a third of all the species you'll find on a typical prairie.

The interesting thing about Kansas history is that when settlers came here, they not only substituted domestic grasses like wheat for natives ones. As well, they cropped soybeans in place of native legumes like scurf peas, wild indigo and lead plant. And they grew cultivated sunflowers in place of natives.

From Freeman's perspective, the downside of the swap of grass for grass and bean for bean is this: Starting from scratch every year and raising acre upon acre of a single crop incurs high energy costs.

Wes Jackson, who heads the Kansas Land Institute in Salina, has been looking for mixes of perennials that could be harvested each year without replanting, Freeman says. In other words, Jackson envisions new kinds of perennial crops growing in fields that have a lot of the same dynamics as native prairie.

But no magic bullet's been found yet, Freeman says.

If that were that to happen, the mindset, the tools and the economics of agribusiness would have to change, he says � not to mention our dietary habits.

Those are near-revolutionary changes. Nevertheless, the idea of harvestable, edible perennials is intriguing. It makes me wonder what the grasses and beans of 23rd-

century Kansas will look like.

� Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU's research magazine Web site, which can be found at www.research.ukans.edu. Martin's e-mail address is rmartin@kucr.ukans.edu.


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