Tanglehead (Heteropogon contortus)

Main Sources: Rea, 1997, At the Desert's Green Edge: an Ethnobotany of the Gila River Pima, Tucson: University of Arizona Press; Gould, Frank, 1951, Grasses of the Southwestern United States, Tucson: University of Arizona Press; Shreve, Forrest & Ira Wiggins, 1964, Vegetation and Flora of the Sonoran Desert, Vol. 1, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press; Kearney, Thomas & Robert Peebles, et al, 1960, Arizona Flora, Berkeley: University of California Press; McClaran, Mitchel & Thomas Van Devender, 1995, The Desert Grassland, Tucson: University of Arizona Press; van Devender, Thomas & Mark Dimmitt, "Desert Grasses", in Phillips, Steven& Patricia Comus, eds., 2000, A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, pp. 265-80, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press, Tucson; Ruyle, George & Deborah Young, eds., 1997, Arizona Range Grasses, Tucson, University of Arizona College of Agriculture; U.S.D.A. Conservation Districts of Southeastern Arizona, n.d., Grasses of Southeastern Arizona. Washington, D.C.

Tanglehead is widespread in the tropical regions of the world, but reaches its northern limits in deserts of the southwestern United States, where above 5500' it is limited by cold (as well as desert drought).

A perennial bunchgrass that may reach 3' in height, usually branching well above the base, it is found in a wide variety of locations and soils, from washes to rocky slopes, and becomes highly visible due to its mature orange-brown coloration:

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The banner image at the top of the page shows Tanglehead's rather distinctive pattern of inflorescence, which (together with its reddening tendencies) help to mark it out. It forms a spikelike inflorescence which ultimately twists into a tangled mass. Most of its growth occurs in early warmth wherever moisture is sufficient. In washes it often serves to stabilize soils.

A reddish tinge is noticeable in this grass even when it newly greens up. At left, you can see this at the very tips of a plant thriving in August of 2004./p>

 

Whole plants shown in the image below show this reddening. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As do contemporary scientists, the Pima people defined this grass by "the long, twisted awns of the spikelets that become entwined with one another when they fall from the plant" (Rea, cited above, p. 114). See this entwining in the images below: (Click on the right-hand image to enlarge it.)

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The image at right above shows several separate seed-stalks that have intertwined together -- the basis for the "contortion" terminology in the scientific name of this plant.

 

 

As can be seen from the image at right, the distinctively reddish coloration is most strongly pronounced during the winter (February, in the example of this photo).

 

 

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