Supergrass

Grass can be quite boring – when it’s a meticulously-mown lawn, that is. Leave it to grow and flower, and you’ll see all sorts of interesting things. The first thing you’ll notice is that grass flowers are low- key and not spectacular in themselves; it’s mainly the way they’re arranged on the stem which makes them attractive (although this Scientific American article shows that when they’re flowering fully, grasses are even more beautiful).

You can think of grasses as having three basic flower arrangements, as shown below:

Grass Flower Arrangements - 30 Days Wild

Although I’m not good at identifying grasses, I’ve worked with herbarium specimens and I know that the way the flowers are arranged is helpful when it comes to making an identification. I’ve hardly ever gone grass spotting in the wild, because I’ve done most of my research on dried specimens. So my goal for today—day 4 of 30 Days Wild—was a simple one: to see whether I could find examples of all three types, and photograph them.

I found lots of different examples of spikes, and many kinds of panicle, but not so many racemes. And taking pictures was surprisingly tricky because there was a stiff breeze blowing, which made the grasses move.

But here are some usable pictures:

Grass Spike - 30 Days Wild
Spike
Grass Panicle - 30 Days Wild
Panicle
Grass Raceme - 30 Days Wild
Raceme

And here’s one where I managed (quite by chance) to get all three arrangement types in one picture:

All 3 Grass Flower Types - 30 Days Wild

Identifying grasses at the species level (which is something I have tried to do) can be amazingly tricky. It involves dissecting individual flowers (we call them spikelets), and measuring the inner structures under a microscope. Delicate and painstaking though it is, I love doing dissections. Until you’ve seen one, it’s hard to imagine so many beautiful and delicate parts coming from such a tiny package. That’s why I wanted to include this video of a grass dissection – this way the demonstrator does the difficult stuff and you get to sit back and appreciate how amazing the grass spikelet is!

Grasses are probably the most important plant of all for humans.  We eat a lot of them (wheat, oats, barley and their relatives are all grasses), we use them to thatch our roofs and make baskets and mats, and many different grass species can be found in our gardens. Did you know bamboo is a grass, too? Last but not least, grasses provide cover for other wildlife (from insects to nesting rockhopper penguins, depending on where you are in the world).

So you’ll see why I think the humble grass really isn’t so humble after all. It’s more a case of supergrass.


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