The Grass is Always Greener...

By Elaine Farragher

When I first took to observing nature, and for many years after, I ignored grass as a subject of any interest whatsoever. Grass was – well, grass. The stuff you stepped on to get to that wildflower over there. I was vaguely aware that there were different kinds of grasses, but I never really believed that anyone short of a career biologist was capable of differentiating them. I once almost bought a book on grasses, but when I noticed on leafing through, that a microscope seemed to be a necessary tool, I again forgot about grasses until I finally came upon another book which opened my eyes and started me on another interesting path of enquiry.

Grasses: An Identification Guide by Lauren Brown, is a great introduction to the study of grasses. Valuable indeed is a book that can open up whole new worlds of boundless interest and discovery. Suddenly, grasses came out of the background and into the foreground.

Grasses are generally considered by those who have never really looked at them, to look very much the same - tall, skinny green leaves, a bit of fuzzy inflorescence at the top, and if the only grass you see is on your lawn, then even less of interest is visible. But as Lauren Brown’s illustrations point out, grasses, even very common ones, come in a great variety of shapes and sizes, vary greatly in habit, and have many different uses as well. Grasses even have flowers, albeit inconspicuous ones, and even vary in colour once you start looking.

Grasses deserve to be studied more by us amateur naturalists, just because they are such a pervasive and important part of our natural heritage. Grasses grow all over the world in climatic extremes only surpassed by lichens and algae. Grasses produce fruit, just as other plants do and this fruit, the grain, is of high importance to our food supply. The grass family includes oats, barley, corn, rice, wheat, rye and millet. The bulk of the plant, the leafy green parts, cannot be eaten by humans since it contains cellulose, but other animals, including cows, can digest these parts. So, as Lauren Brown points out, “even if you eat nothing but hamburger, you are still eating grass.” Even sugar cane is a member of the grass family so if you have a sweet tooth, it is really grass you are craving!

Grass has been successful world-wide because of several unique features which ensure its survival while other plants fail. The part you see above ground is only a small part of the plant. As much as ninety percent of the bulk of the plant is located in the roots. If fire sweeps through an area, the grasses can spring back quickly because only a small part has been damaged. Also, the grass plant does not particularly care if its top is snipped off say by, a grazing cow or a lawn mower. In most plants, the cells responsible for growth are located at the top of the plant. So if the top is snipped off, the plant either dies or grows new side shoots from somewhere else on the plant. But grass has its growth cells located at the base of the plant. As well it possesses buds near its base which can also send out side shoots called tillers. This is why many grasses grow in clumps.

Grasses can also survive drought more easily than other plants because with so much of the plant underground, it is subject to much less moisture loss through its top.

It is because grass forms such dense, underground root systems, that it is so perfect for suburban lawns. Other plants cannot penetrate the maze of roots to take root themselves. However, in the eastern deciduous forest regions in which we live, treeless grasslands are not the natural state of affairs. This exists only in the prairies. (And why the prairies remain treeless is a topic of some debate.) In our own area, as Brown points out, “. . .your lawn will do all it can to become a forest, and will only stay lawn if energy, in the form of sweat, gas and so forth, is expended.“ It is unfortunate that lawns are such a universally popular method of surrounding our houses, since chemicals are one of the major ways of inhibiting the natural progression to forest. This billion dollar luxury industry is an expense, not only to our pocket books, but to our environment.

Elaine Farragher, July 1988

Subject headings

Grass - Nature