The BioGeek Memoirs: Pampas Grass

It’s fall now in Colorado. The evenings are crisp, the trees are glowing in autumn hues, the crickets have gone silent, and only the bunnies remain in the yard. The last of the plants in my gardens are bravely blooming still, but tomorrow there is a frost warning, and their last days are upon them.

Here and there among the glowing trees the plumes of ornamental Pampas grass wave in the wind. These showy grasses, indigenous to the Pampas region of South America, have become more and more popular over the last few years and different varieties of them wave in the wind at me as I drive by on errands. Each time I see one I’m hit with a wave of good feeling: my mother loved Pampas grass.

Remember my mom, born in Yokohama, Japan, to Swedish-American parents? Well, she spent her high school years in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at the edge of the South American Pampas. How did that happen, you ask. Well… my grandfather was an engineer who worked for a canning company that operated internationally, which is why my mom learned 4 different languages during her life. Let’s get back to the Pampas grass…

Early in the summer the grasses have these showy white plumes…
Now the plumes are brown as the seeds ripen. Do you see how tall these grasses are?
That stop sign is taller than me, so that grass is at least 8 feet tall!!

Every time my mother saw Pampas grass growing, she would exclaim about how wonderful it was, how it came from the Pampas, and then the stories about the Pampas would start. The grasslands, the Gauchos, Yerba Mate tea, ropes and cows, and then all her memories of Buenos Aires. (We tried to love the Pampas grass too, for her sake, but the edges of the grass had little buzzsaw edges that could give us a nasty cut on our fingers. Those grasses are better admired from afar!) She made us Yerba Mate tea and we could try to drink it out of her special little gourd with its silver straw.

My mom used to wear this silver brooch of a Gaucho hat with an attached rope and knife.

Now I live at the edge of the North American Great Plains which is similar to the Pampas of my mother’s formative years. Many of the animals that live here echo the animals that my mother told us about when I was young (but not all… we have bison!), and instead of Gauchos we have a Cowboy culture. There are tall grasses here, and sagebrush, but nothing like the Pampas grass. Still, there are the open skies, the gentle hills covered with waving grass, raptors soaring overhead, and the occasional sighting of an antelope or deer. I understand why my mother evidently longed for the open vistas of the Pampas after she had left them, and each time I drive past open prairielands I feel connected through time with her.

And every time I see Pampas grass.

The BioGeek Memoirs: Garter Snake

Last summer, while walking through the garage on my way to the front, I came across a little garter snake moving across the concrete floor towards me. “Oh, no you don’t!” I told him. “Back out the door you go!”

That little guy flipped right around and speedily snaked his way right back out the way he came. “Out, out…” I told him as I continued to herd him until he was safely back out front.

Photo Credit: Inklein, downloaded from Creative Commons

I’ve had many, many encounters with garter snakes over the years. They are common in the yard where they sun themselves in the mornings. They will even climb up into shrubs as they try to catch those early morning rays: during an early morning stop at a creek getting water to use in a biology lab I accidently chose a path through a group of draped and sunning garter snakes. The students through it was just hysterical when I arrived in class that morning somewhat rumpled and covered in burrs after I had leapt around like a crazy person trying to avoid the snakes. I was picking burrs out of my fleece vest all day…

I live on the edge of the Great Plains region of the United States; fields and residential areas broken by open spaces with small waterways moving through them. These snakes are relatively small and hang out on the land and in the water catching whatever they can to eat. What do they eat? Whatever they can catch, evidently! I spent some time online trying to nail this down as I do wonder what that little snake in my yard is going to munch on (not my baby bunny… no!) and discovered that they eat earthworms, slugs (yay!), small rodents (another yay!), fish, and other small animals in the riparian area where they live.

My little snake appeared in the garage late in the summer. I seem to see a lot of them at that time of year; the babies are born alive (the mother holds onto the eggs internally until it is time for the baby snakes to emerge) and then there are little snakes (pencil thin and less than a foot long) whipping along across the sidewalk and through the lawn. These baby snakes are prime targets for the adventurous cat looking for the best cat toy ever as they frantically race back and forth through the garden and hiding along the landscaping timber.

There were few things that my cat Morgan loved more than a great garter snake chase!

I, of course, was more worried about the snake. Okay, I’m also not a fan of the cats dragging the snake around and maybe even into the house. Once I had a snake loose in an upstairs bedroom; it had been brought in by my beautiful Siamese cat. Luckily the cat’s behavior helped me locate it (it had slithered up the front of a dresser and was hiding along the edge of one of the drawers with the cat’s nose right on it…) and it was captured and returned to a safe cat-free area outdoors.

I used to have a garter snake in my 6th grade science classroom. It had a large screen-covered aquarium with a big dish of water, branches to climb on, and plants and bark to hide in on the bottom. It took me a while to figure out what to feed it… crickets just sat on its back and rode it around; the snake looked kind of sad to have its cage invaded by insects. The students and I dropped in earthworms. Nope. Lunchmeat was completely ignored. I refused to try baby mice. Finally, I bought it some feeder goldfish and dumped then into the water dish. Bingo! Obviously, this snake was pretty aquatic in its orientation, and it happily chased down and snacked on four little feeder goldfish once a month. Who knew they eat fish? Obviously, they do!

That little snake was a happy camper in its inner-city classroom for a couple years. It had a nice heat lamp that it basked under in the mornings, draped across the wooden branches in its cage. On hot afternoons it spent its time in the water dish staying cool. Overnight it burrowed down into the wood chips in the bottom of its cage. Since snakes can’t regulate their own internal temperatures like we do it moved around in its environment to keep its internal temperature in a comfortable range.

One day the cage was empty: my snake had pushed open the screen cover and escaped. Oops. Umm… of course the students noticed that he was gone. Two days later my principal crept in during class and told me that my snake was sunning itself on a windowsill in a classroom upstairs. Yep. There he was, looking exceeding pleased with himself. The students had recognized him right away. I had to buy that teacher a Starbucks gift card…

When I left that job the snake was released back into the same riparian area where he had been caught two years earlier. Hope you had a happy life, little guy! I wonder what he told the other snakes about his years in a 6th grade classroom where he learned all about the life cycle of stars, the space shuttle, ecology, weather, and some simple chemistry?

He was a well-educated snake!

P.S. My neighbors don’t enjoy the garter snakes as much as I do, but I view them as an essential part of the local backyard ecosystem. My neighbors struggle with mice that invade their garages and homes each fall, and something keeps munching on their flowers. Somehow, I don’t have the same problems. Go get those slugs, garter snakes!!

You can learn more about the snakes of Colorado here.