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.
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.
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.
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).
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.