Getting to Know Grasses

Of all the plants I have always found grasses the least enchanting.

Garden lawns, roadside verges, the turfs of sports fields and bowling greens. Amenity grasslands where the diverse species are reduced to ‘grass’.

I’ve disliked grasses when they’re tame and when they’re wild and misbehave.

I’ve hated the grass on the green in Greencroft Valley more than the weeds for taking over the wildflower meadow, reducing floral diversity to the homogenous greenery beloved of local councils and small-minded humans.

I’m allergic to grass. It makes me itch and its pollen triggers my hay fever.

Yet the grass family, the Poaceae, the fifth largest plant family on this planet, is an essential food source for humans and for a variety of other mammals including the animal I am closest to, the horse, who evolved along with grasses 55 million years ago, its long teeth evolving as it moved away from fruit.

In my new job as a Graduate Ecologist I have been training to carry out Extended Phase One Habitat Surveys and this involves learning to assess whether a grassland is neutral, acid, or calcareous; unimproved, semi-improved, improved or poor, based upon the species present.

To tell individual grasses from grass you need to get familiar with their structure: roots, rhizomes or stolons, sheath and blade, nodes, culm, the inflorescence and its spikelets, awned and unawned, the number of florets and, within each floret, the glumes, anthers, stigma, lemma, and palea. Then, importantly, there’s the ligule, where the blade meets the sheath, which can be long and pointed, short and blunt, a ring of hairs, and sometimes has auricles.

It’s difficult but not impossible. And, fortunately, I have an eye for detail and am quick to pick up on the general feeling, often called the ‘jizz’ of another being.

As I’ve learnt the names and distinguishing features of the different grasses: Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus) with its ‘striped pyjamas’ at the base of the stems, common couch (Elymus repens) with its spikelets broadside like fairy couches, perennial rye grass (Lolium perenne) with its silvery underside, cock’s foot (Dactylus glomerata) named for the shape of its inflorescences and a huge plant with flat stems growing in tussocks, contrasting with the fine wiry leaves of the delicate red fescue (Fesca rubra) and the unforgettable creeping soft grass (Holcus mollis) with its ‘hairy knees’ I have come to see them as individuals and not as the antagonistic homogenous mass I called grass.

I have a long way to go until I know grasses but, at least, I’m taking the first steps.