As a youth, I was afflicted with debilitating allergy to grass pollen. I’ll spare you the details, but I will say that it engaged my curiosity about these plants early on. I saw grasses everywhere, in many habitats and with notably varied habits.
I outgrew the allergy—but my curiosity remained. I admired grasses in the wild, grasses as weeds, grasses as food, grasses as garden subjects. I came to recognize many grasses, based solely on my familiarity with them as companions.
If you asked me how to identify this particular grass, or begged me to name parts of a grass flower, I was at a loss. Grasses….cloaked in mystery.
Upon reaching my mid-twenties, though, I enrolled in a quarter-long University of Washington course in the identification and evolution of grasses. The class was taught by Dr. Melinda Denton (now deceased) and her graduate student and teaching assistant Jerrold Davis (now professor of botany at Cornell University specializing in…the grass family!). It was the most difficult and rewarding course I’ve ever had.
As with most areas of science, half the battle is to master a new lexicon. The Grass Language describes with precision the unique and highly specialized structures found in grasses. Melinda and Jerry encouraged their students to closely observe the minute grass parts and to speak Grass.
Slowly, the grasses began to distinguish themselves as clearly as a rose distinguishes itself from a daisy. Our excursions into evolution of the grass family revealed dramatic stories of innovation, self-defense, efficiency, and adaptation.
The Grass Family amasses superlatives. With nearly 11,000 species by some counts, this family is the fourth largest family of plants.
- Grasses are among the most efficient photosynthesizers on the planet.
- Grasses are used by humans for everything from clothing and housing to brewing beer.
- Grasses dominate world crop production and lists of the world’s worst weeds.
- Grasses’ cultivation may have been the most important catalyst in the very advent of human civilization!
In the years since Melinda and Jerry’s class, I’ve honed my observational skills with grasses, speak the Grass Language fluently, and intimately know many species of grass in the Pacific Northwest. I also share my experience with and excitement about these plants with whomever will listen. I’ve been teaching students about grasses for more than 25 years.
I’ll teach about grasses again, next month.
Know Your Grasses: the Identification and Appreciation of Grass is an intensive hands-on workshop that blends one and a half days of classroom and lab work with one day of field study. I use a combination of lectures, guided examination of live and pressed plant specimens (with and without stereo-microscopes), and practice with technical identification keys.
The Washington Native Plant Society and the University of Washington Herbarium at the Burke Museum are partnering to offer this workshop on June 12, 13, and 14, 2013 at the University of Washington Seattle campus.
Grasses help you read the landscape: they say much about soils, habitats, disturbance, and past land uses. Grasses grace your gardens with elegance and subtle beauty. And they’ll never cease to amaze as science discovers new chapters in their stories of evolution.
I’m still slightly allergic to grass pollen, particularly if I rub my face with it in close examination of fresh flowers. But that’s a small price to pay to experience the remarkable world of Grass.