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Grasslands & the Sandhills of Nebraska

Grasslands, ranges, & their communities of life

You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them. Wangari Maathai


Grasslands are more important to a sustainable world than most people realize. Grasses are highly diverse with about seven species providing most of the calories we consume. Wheat, maize, and rice provide 50% of the calories eaten by humans as well as much of their protein and micronutrients. In addition to being cultivated as staple grain crops and pastures they provide forage, pasture, and prairie grasses that feed animals that supply meat, eggs, and dairy products. Other food grasses include: sorghum, fonio, millets, barley, sugarcane, as well as turf grasses for recreational areas, and bamboos for construction. Grasses create ecosystems that cover large areas of Earth. They are 20%, of the sixty thousand species of monocots and need to be considered more as solutions for climate change and carbon storage. To do so we need to increase our recognition of their diversity and value. Value in creating fertile soil, reducing erosion and their importance for healthy watersheds, storing carbon dioxide, producing oxygen, providing animal habitat, building materials, as well as food for organisms that live within grassland communities (biomes).

To these ends this page includes resources for grasslands and Nebraska Sandhills as one example of a unique grassland biome.

Grass plant anatomy model

Grass plant diagram

Grassland & range plants



Varieties of grasses

  • Big blue stem - tall
  • Side Oats Groma - medium
  • Switch grass - tall
  • Indiangrass - tall
  • Tall Fescu
  • Buffalo Grass - short
  • Blue Groma - short
  • Reed Canary Grass
  • Perennial Rye Grass
  • Birdsfoot Trefoil - medium
  • Little Blue Stem - medium
  • Crown vetch
  • Hairy Vetch - tall
  • Crested Wheatgrass - medium
  • Intermediate Wheatgrass - medium
  • Kentucky Bluegrass - short
  • Sericea Lespedeza - tall
  • Alfalfa - tall & medium
  • Clover
  • Milkvetch
  • Russian Wild Rye
  • Timothy - medium to tall 20-40 inches
  • Orchard grass medium - tall 2-4 feet
  • Creeping Foxtail
  • Prairie Treeawn
  • Prairie Sandreed - tall
  • Sand Blue Stem - tall
  • Sand Lovegrass
  • Prairie Condgrass
  • Western Wheatgrass - medium
  • Green Needlegrass - medium
  • Redd CLover - medium - short
  • Sweet CLover - tall


Annotated resources for grasslands

HoB resources related to plants

Printed resources


Sandhills, Nebraska Grassland Community

Sandhills Nebraska map


There are about 720 species of vascular plants growing without cultivation in the Sandhills.  About 670 of them are native species. Most of the plants which grow in the Sandhills grow else where.  Hayden's or blowout penstemon is native and confined to the Sandhills.  

The tops of dunes have a low water-holding capacity and high infiltration rate to afford ample replenishment of subsoil moisture.  Plants found on the tops therefore tend to be warm-season grasses with long tap roots which penetrate deep into the soil.  Examples are sand bluestem, prairie sandreed, switchgrass, Indian grass, stiff sunflower, purple prairie clover, small soapweed, sand-cherry, and lead plant.

The interdunal valleys have a finer textured soil which has a low infiltration rate to afford poor replenishment of subsoil moisture.  Therefore, plants found in the interdunal valleys are cool-season grasses with shallow root systems to collect water near the surface.  Examples are wheatgrass, and needle-and-thread grass.

Of course there are exceptions to the above generalizations.  Junegrass is an example with a fibrous root system which grows on the tops of dunes.  It's capacity to absorb and retain water and rapid early growth might explain how it has adapted.

The most common community is the bunchgrass community.  The most common bunchgrass is little bluestem, the state grass of Nebraska.  Other common are Junegrass, needle-and-thread, prairie sandreed, and switchgrass.    The roots from these grasses can extend from 3-5 feet with little bluestem know to extend to seven.

Sedges like umbrella sedge, flatsedge, and caricoid sedges are also found. 

Small soapweed has a taproot which may be a foot thick and penetrate to 5 feet.  Its lateral roots have been found to extend to a depth of 10 feet and horizontally to 25 feet.

Other plants not grasses found in the Sand Hills include the morning-glory which has a tuberous root which can extend to 4 feet and its roots to amazing depths maybe even to the water table.  The plant breaks off in the fall and rolls away as a tumbleweed.  Other plants include sages, milkweeds, spurges, penstemons, puccoons, cacti, daisies, and asters.

Shrubs include sand cherry, Arkansas rose, New Jersey tea, and poison ivy.

The Sandhill Muhly community is similar to the bunchgrass community, but is undergoing a succession following a disturbance of fire, overgrazing, construction and blowout.  This community is characterized by the sandhill muhly.

The blowout community includes blowout grass and sometimes prairie sandreed, sand muhly, ricegrass, and sand lovegrass.  Other plants include lemon scurf-pea, sand binder, Hayden's penstemon, croton and clammy weed.

Other communities include needle-and-thread, three-awn grass, short-grass, meadow, wet meadow, and marsh or aquatic.

Reptiles of the Sand Hills




Amphibians of the Sandhills

Birds of the Sandhills 

Mammals of the Sandhills

Nebraska Sandhill Resources


Grass plant worksheet

Grass anatomy worksheet