Photos of the Week – June 5, 2022

Foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum) is a great little perennial native grass here in Nebraska, but many people view it as a weed. While it’s a perennial, it acts like an annual in that it often grows in heavily disturbed sites – especially places where other vegetation has been recently flooded out. It’s not a strong competitor, so it only sticks around the same place if that place is repeatedly flooded or otherwise disturbed in a way that prevents other plants from doing well.

Here’s a 2018 photo of foxtail barley in a recently-restored wetland slough in our Platte River Prairies.
I took this photo of a patch of foxtail barley last summer (2021) at sunrise in a different Platte River Prairies site.

One of the characteristic traits of foxtail barley is its long awns, which look like lengthy hairs on its flowering heads. The awns often have a kind of pastel pink or salmon hue to them, especially in the right light. A large patch of foxtail barley can be a gorgeous scene as the colors and textures blend together – especially as they wave and ripple in the breeze.

Foxtail barley, showing off its long awns (the hairlike projections on its flowering heads).

Like any other grass, foxtail barley produces pollen when it flowers. That pollen, in turn, attracts tiny insects to feed on it. Flies seem particularly interested, but they’re far from the only ones. Not surprisingly, congregations of flies and other small insects also attract predators – especially tiny crab spiders, which nestle themselves between the long awns and wait for unsuspecting prey to show up. I noticed both the flies and spiders at one of our wet prairies along the Platte River last week. Then I saw more of them at Prairie Plains Resource Institute’s Gjerloff Prairie yesterday.

The little crab spiders blend well with the awns of foxtail barley.
The spiders’ legs are both similar in color and translucence to the awns.
This tiny spider was feeding on a little bug it had caught at Gjerloff Prairie yesterday.

Photographing the spiders and their prospective prey is very tricky. First, of course, insects are wary of big hulking photographers, so they don’t stick around very well when I approach. Second, though, foxtail barley’s big awns catch even the slightest breeze and seem constantly on the move.

As I tried to photograph the little creatures within those awns last week, I often ended up trying to hold the tips of the awns while shoving my camera (on a tripod) close enough to get the photo I wanted. Most of the time, this ended up in the spider or other creature leaving way before I could compose a shot, but persistence eventually paid off and I managed to find a few more tolerant individuals (including those shown above).

Foxtail barley yesterday morning at Gjerloff Prairie.

I’ve long been a fan of this plucky little grass that can handle conditions most other plants can’t. Its gorgeous ‘head of hair’ is certainly part of the appeal too, of course. Now that I’ve started to pay attention to the interactions going on between its pollen-consuming visitors and the spiders waiting in ambush for those visitors, I love foxtail barley even more.

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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.

9 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – June 5, 2022

  1. Thank you for a very nice article on Foxtail barley. I have loved this plant since I was a very little girl. I would pick child size handfuls. The touch, softness and wisp were so intriguing and pretty.

  2. I first fell in love with Foxtail barley when I was eight years old. I even collected seeds and try to grow it in my 20s and 30s. But it was not until today, at age 67, that I finally knew the name! Thank you so much for this beautiful article. And for your patience in getting just the right shot. Many of us share your passion.

  3. Beautiful captures of the tiny arachnids that inhabit the Foxtail barley. That is a gorgeous grass and the images convey the swaying in the breeze. One of my favorite things about our prairies, they are in constant motion with the slightest of winds.
    Thanks Chris!

  4. I have enjoyed your informative posts, including this one. Thank you. However if you’re a dog owner, especially one who hunts upland game birds, this plant has a dark side. The barbed awns can find their way into a dog’s nose, ears, eyes and paws. If not discovered and removed, can work their way into the body causing major damage and even death. Dog owners beware.


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