Introducing: The Prairie Word of the Day

I’m sure many of you are as tired of this blog as I am.  The same old nature photos, natural history, prairie management/restoration information…  It just drones on and on.  Honestly, I don’t know how you manage to drag your eyes through most of my posts.  How much prairie stuff can one person read about, after all?

(…Yes, I’m kidding – there is no limit to how much prairie information one person can read about.  And I am not at all tired of this blog… though you certainly might be, I don’t know.)

Well, the blog isn’t going away anytime soon (why, what have you heard??)  But in an effort to keep it from growing stale, I’m introducing a new feature called “The Prairie Word of the Day.”  …Yes, I know –  a titillating title, isn’t it?  It ought to be, it took me about three months to refine it.  It’s pithy, catchy, and descriptive all at once.  Or at least descriptive.

As with any field, prairie ecology is full of jargon; words that make sense to those of us who spend most of our waking hours thinking about prairies but make no sense to anyone else.  I try hard not to use to much prairie jargon in my posts, but I slip up now and then.  Sorry about that.  There are a lot of fun, but confusing, prairie jargon words out there, so I thought I’d highlight one now and then and try to explain what it means.  I would love to hear nominations from you as well – what undecipherable words do I or others use when talking or writing about prairies?

Ok, without further ado, the inaugural Prairie Ecologist Blog Prairie Word of the Day is:


Sure, everyone knows what a tiller is, right?  You use it to prepare your garden for planting.  Or, if you are a pirate, you might use it to steer your ship.  (If you are a pirate and read this blog, PLEASE let me know.  Prairie-loving pirates is a demographic I would love to reach out to.)

However, if you are REALLY into prairies or botany, you might be familiar with a third definition; one that is related to grasses.


Although it is used somewhat inconsistently, a tiller usually refers to the aboveground shoot of a grass.  In other words, if you were to look closely at a grass plant you’d see that most of them have multiple stems at their base.  Each of those stems is a tiller.  Usually, the term tiller only applies to shoots that emerge from buds at the base of other tillers, not from seeds.  Thus, when a grass seed germinates and starts to grow, the first shoot that pops out of the ground is not a tiller.  It’s just a shoot.  I guess.  But after that, every new shoot that comes out of the ground from that plant is a tiller.

Tillers are primarily important, as far as I can tell, because professors like to make graduate students count them.  As in, “Hey Sara, take this 1 x 1 meter plot frame out to that prairie, lay it down and count the number of grass tillers inside it. (snicker)  Then do that 99 more times. (guffaw!)  Then we’ll move on to the next prairie.”

Grass greening up in the Derr Sandhills about a week after a prescribed fire.

The tillers of this bunchgrass are all bunched together.


A related botanical prairie word is “sward” which basically means a bunch of grass.  Well, not really a “bunch” because that’s its own term (grasses like little bluestem are called bunch grasses because they grow their tillers tightly together and look neat and tidy, as opposed to grasses such as prairie sand reed that across the prairie like they own the place).  A better way to describe a sward, then, is that it’s an area of grass.  However, I don’t think there’s any restriction on how big that area of grass has to be, which makes the term less useful.  That’s probably why you don’t hear it used very often.  Except by grassland poets trying to rhyme something with “charred”.  As in, “Lo, the land was black and charred.  No trees remained throughout the sward.”

There are an awful lot of tillers in this sward.  Too many to count - even for a graduate student.

There are numerous tillers in this sward. Too many to count – even for a graduate student.

If botanists were funny, they might say something like, “Arrr, Matey!  Take over the tiller smartly while I decide whether to shoot this lubber or run him through with my sward.”

(I’m kidding, of course.  Botanists can be very funny.  Sometimes on purpose.  Also, many are quite hirsute.  Except on top, where some are pretty glabrous.)

Well anyway, that concludes the first ever installment of The Prairie Word of the Day.  I hope it was instructive.  Please nominate terms (in the comments section below) you’d like to see included in future Word of the Day posts and I’ll try to use as many as I can.

This entry was posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Plants and tagged , , , , , , , , , by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

37 thoughts on “Introducing: The Prairie Word of the Day

  1. I love learning bits of things that I might never have any use for – other than for writing poetry, which I do on occasion (but seldom rhyming, so…). Your couplet was quite nice, BTW! I think you should challenge yourself to use each PWOTD in every subsequent post so that it will sink in for your readers.

  2. You have a marvelous sense of humor, but I’m not sure the botanists will think so. And I learned one more thing, the runner between the tillers is a rhizome. Maybe I’m not totally clear on what “rhizome” means. If I run into any pirates I’ll steer them in your direction, they don’t know what they’re missing. :)

  3. After a long day of teaching children, I look forward to what I’ll learn through your posts, not to mention, what I’ll get to laugh at, too! Thanks!

  4. “Shatter.” I remember using this term in a re-vegetation report for my boss at a uranium mining company and he made me take it out because it sounded negative. It just means that a study transect in summer is not going to capture information about spring-blooming plants because they’ve already disappeared.

  5. I was glad to find out you were kidding, because I look forward every post to your latest grassland lore. And while I knew what a sward was (being a poet myself), I was vague on tiller (except for the pirate version). Thanks! And keep it going.

  6. I figured out a long long time ago that botanists love
    words. Some also love numbers. But if you don’t love words, botany is not for you. I’m going to enjoy Words of the Day.

  7. I did fly the jolly rogers on my sail boat for about 15 years. Hubby wouldn’t let me mount a cannon on the bow like I wanted.
    Would that qualify me as a “Prairie Pirate”?

  8. Neat learning prairie terminology from you, Chris! Fun and never cormmy. : )
    How about “corm”. We readers are like tiller, growing with knowledge from yours.

  9. This is pretty funny & a cool idea if we wanted to include a link in our newsletter. I’ll just keep shooting ideas your way and please know that I will not be offended if you don’t include them!

    Natasha Wilkie SK PCAP Manager Box 4752, Regina, SK, S4P 3Y4 Ph: (306) 352-0472 – Cell: (306) 530-7233 Fax: (306) 569-8799 pcap@sasktel.net Twitter: @SaskPCAP

    Our Vision: Healthy native prairie ecosystems as vital parts of our vibrant and strong communities. Prairie Conservation & Endangered Species Conference – February 16-18, 2016 – Saskatoon, SK –

  10. Speaking of hirsute, I could see a whole series of posts on all the synonyms for hairy: tomentose, hispid, pilose, strigose, and many more. My book on Plant Identification Terminology (by Harris and Harris–I highly recommend it) has 6 whole pages!

  11. A Prairie King

    When I sally forth to read prairie
    I help myself right regally.
    Camera never leaving hand
    I freeze minutely images grand.
    I fritillary my day, it’s true,
    When shooting monarchs ought to do;
    But many a write of a first-class tome,
    Would never be written if not for roam.
    Seeking evidentially,
    To prove improved diversity.

    For I am a Prairie King!
    And it is, it is a glorious thing
    To be a Prairie King!

    Oh, better far to snap and scribe
    The great grass ocean, verdant or dried,
    And watch as battles are lost or won,
    By spiders or bees on Erigeron.
    Than wade paper oceans that mound a desk
    Or screen email crises or reassign tasks.
    Yes, come with me and listen to song,
    Of big blue stem humming and sing along,
    There’s nothing so fine and nowhere so grand
    As a prairie, with meadowlark leading the band.

    Oh, I am a Prairie King!
    And it is, it is a glorious thing
    To be a Prairie King!

    Teresa Lombard

  12. As this is the International Year of Soils, it would be fitting to profile Mollisols, the soil order that owes its characteristics to the exceptional ability of grasses to sequester carbon in the ground.

  13. Good discussion. Funny too. I nominate ‘rhizomatous’. It’s a natural follow-up. It relates to other important terms, such as ‘colonial’ and ‘cespitose’ or ‘bunch’, and has at least a couple meanings.

  14. ecotype seems an important topic given problems with climate disruption; though I see it used two ways: an assemblage of plants in a region vs. the way I prefer to use it: subsets of a species based on local climate. Of course, that is one of the values of your blog, you can present both and get some feedback from your impressively broad and deep audience (whether their apical meristem is hirsute or glabbrous)

    • In the nursery industry it usually refers to plant material from a certain county or state of origin, as in Sand County ecotype versus Clay County ecotype. It’s loosely based on your second meaning, but misses the mark by a long shot.

      • since “Prairie Word of the Day” & “Prairie Ecologist” are so widely read, perhaps we could make his word LAW what is the correct definition and usage. Those violating the rules will be punished by having to pull exotics for a day from restoration closest to the offender. Minimizing travel maximizes best return on volunteer’s time investment.

  15. Hi Chris, I’d say this qualifies as your most humorous blog post yet. I’m looking forward to reading more “words of the day”.

  16. Nominate mutualism, culm, stipule. I also second the suggestion on something related to soils – but maybe ‘sequester’?

  17. Pingback: Prairie Word of the Day – Disturbance | The Prairie Ecologist

  18. Pingback: Prairie Word of the Day – Phenology | The Prairie Ecologist


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.