Grass family (Poaceae)
Description: This native grass is ¾1½' tall and often tufted at the base, sending up multiple unbranched culms. It is a winter or spring annual. The culms are erect to ascending and sometimes decumbent at the base; they are terete, light green, and slender. Each culm has 1-3 alternate leaves along the lower half of its length. The leaf blades are ¾2½" long and about 1/8" (3 mm.) across; they are dull pale green, hairless, and flat. Along the culm, these blades are erect to ascending, rather than widely spreading. The leaf sheaths are pale green to pale purplish green, finely veined, and hairless. The nodes are dark-colored and swollen. Each culm terminates in a spike-like inflorescence about 1½3" long and ½" across; this stiff and erect inflorescence consists of 2 rows of spikelets. Each spikelet consists of a central lemma, 2 lateral lemmas, and their glumes; each lemma has 2 glumes. The central lemma is sessile, while the lateral lemmas are short-stalked. The central lemma is 12-15 mm. long (including its awn), linear-lanceolate in shape, and fertile; its glumes are 10-15 mm. long (including their awns) and linear-lanceolate in shape. The lateral lemmas are about 5 mm. long (including their awns, if any) and infertile; their glumes are 10-15 mm. long (including their awns). One of the glumes of each lateral lemma is linear-lanceolate, while the other glume is slender and bristle-like. The awns of the glumes and central lemmas are about 5-6 mm. long. Immature lemmas and glumes are light green; the wider glumes have narrow cream margins. The blooming period occurs from late spring to mid-summer. The florets of the fertile lemmas are cross-pollinated by the wind. The rather large grain of each fertile lemma is oblongloid in shape and light-colored. The root system is shallow and fibrous. This grass reproduces by reseeding itself. It occasionally forms small loose colonies in favorable habitats.
Cultivation: The preference is full sun, dry conditions, and a sterile soil containing an abundance of gravel, sand, or clay. Alkaline soil is readily tolerated, if not preferred. Growth and development occurs rather quickly during the spring and early summer.
Range & Habitat: Little Barley is common in southern Illinois, occasional in central Illinois, and uncommon to absent in the northern section of the state (see Distribution Map). This species has a wide distribution in the southern two-thirds of the continental United States; northern Illinois is located along its northern range limit. Habitats include dry dolomite prairies, gravelly areas along railroads, pastures, fallow fields, and sterile waste areas. This species is somewhat weedy and commonly found in areas with a history of disturbance.
Faunal Associations: There is little specific information about floral-faunal relationships for this species in Illinois. The species Dissosteira carolina (Carolina Grasshopper) and several other grasshoppers are known to feed on both cultivated and wild barley grasses (Hordeum spp.). Many of these grasshoppers prefer the same kind of habitat as Little Barley dry sunny areas with scant vegetation. It also seems likely that some species of mice and ground squirrels eat the seeds occasionally, as this has been observed for wild barley grasses in the Great Plains and western states.
Photographic Location: A dry gravelly area along a railroad near Champaign, Illinois.
Comments: Little Barley is related to the Eurasian Hordeum vulgare (Cultivated Barley). Its appearance is somewhat similar to the awned variety of Cultivated Barley, except that Little Barley is smaller in size and it has shorter awns. Both of these species can be found in similar habitats (e.g., fallow fields and gravelly areas along railroads). The spike-like inflorescence of another species, Hordeum jubatum (Squirreltail Grass, Foxtail Barley), has a nodding habit and its silky awns are much longer than those of Little Barley. The most similar species in the state, Hordeum brachyantherum (Meadow Barley), is very rare in Illinois. All of the glumes of this perennial grass have a narrow bristle-like shape. In contrast, some of the glumes of Little Barley (as described above) are linear-lanceolate and noticeably widened toward their bases. Little Barley is one of the native plants that was cultivated by Amerindians in Illinois and other Midwestern states. Some of its seeds were stored during the fall and winter, planted during the spring, and harvested during the summer as a grain crop. However, when the squash-bean-corn complex of crops arrived in this area from Mexico, its cultivation was abandoned as the latter was more productive.