A Slice of Biodiversity: Sandsage Prairie at Ballyneal Golf Club

February 27, 2024 Christina Alba , Associate Research Scientist

Last summer one of the projects I was most excited about was a biodiversity survey at a golf club. “At a golf club?!” you say. That’s right! Ballyneal Golf Club, situated near Holyoke, Colorado, on the Eastern Plains—just a stone’s throw from Nebraska—hosts some beautiful expanses of sandsage prairie on its out-of-play acreage. This vegetation type is unique, as it is underlain by extremely sandy, well-draining soils. This gives rise to unique plant assemblages, for example, in what are called “blowout” communities. Blowouts are pockets of undulating sand, a dunescape that you might expect to find near the sea, not in the middle of rolling grasses and patches of sagebrush! These blowouts harbor fun little treasure troves of pretty wildflowers.

One exceptionally cool find was the Carolina puccoon (Lithospermum caroliniense). This species is distributed across the Great Lakes region and ranges as far south as Georgia and Florida. It barely threads its way into the far northeastern corner of Colorado and does not extend beyond this small part of the state. However, the star of the show is a grass, aptly named blowout grass (Muhlenbergia multiflora). As its name suggests, this grass can persist in loose, sandy soils due to its extensive rhizomes, and it is considered an important soil binder in areas where other plants may not be able to take root. If you have ever been to Great Sand Dunes National Park, you have seen blowout grass growing in matted patches across the shifting sands.

Sandsage prairie is of conservation concern due to encroachment by roads, pipelines and other infrastructure that supports energy development. It is also home to several unique wildlife species including greater and lesser prairie-chickens, Cassin’s sparrows, and ornate box turtles, all of which are at-risk species. Given this, we appreciated the invitation to survey and make natural history collections of the flora found at Ballyneal. These collections will be held in perpetuity in the Kathryn Kalmbach Herbarium, contributing to a larger understanding of plant distributions across Colorado. 


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