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.

Where The Wild Things Are (and where they aren’t)

In case you haven’t noticed, today is the first day of June. It’s also the first day of 30 Days Wild, an excellent scheme to get us all outside and having encounters with wildlife every day for a month. I signed up in a flurry of optimism a few weeks ago because I think I’m Liz Bonin. I imagined myself spending June in a birding hide somewhere, or skipping through ancient woodland singing madrigals.

Today it dawned on me that I’m not Liz, and I’m not Michaela Strachan, either. I’m a busy person who lives in a city and works at a sedentary job in another, even bigger city. Even worse, I’m not going to be in the country for the entire month: I’m going to be in (you’ve guessed it) a city somewhere in Europe for about half of it. Where the heck am I going to find any wildlife?

Fortunately, my definition of wildlife is a broad one. If it’s alive and we humans aren’t deliberately cultivating or farming it, it counts as wildlife (this is legit, by the way, because I did biology at college and I should know – honest). It includes plants which have managed to find an existence outside gardens and parks, and the insects, birds and fungi all around us. So all I really needed to do to have my very first wild day was walk home more slowly than usual.

In a walk lasting 50 minutes (as opposed to my more usual brisk 35), here’s what I saw:

Mosses and lichens growing on walls. Some of the lichen was actually growing on some of the moss! Just look at that beautiful yellow colour (I’ll write about that in later blog posts because it’s a bit special).

Moss on Wall - 30 Days Wild Lichen on Wall - 30 Days Wild Yellow Lichen on Moss on Wall - 30 Days Wild

A whole load of overgrown verges just bursting with plant life. There weren’t many insects around since it was fairly cold, wet and windy, but I did see a lot of flowers.

Abundant Plant Life - 30 Days Wild Abundant Plant Life - 30 Days Wild Abundant Plant Life - 30 Days Wild

A derelict school where plants of all kinds had pushed through the cracks in the damaged path, and grown under the fence.

Plant Life Under Fence - 30 Days Wild Plants Reclaim the Path - 30 Days Wild

Quite a lot of slugs and snails (some of which reminded me of a really fun citizen science project that ran a few years ago).

Banded Snail - 30 Days Wild Slug - 30 Days Wild

A tree stump teeming with camera-shy ants and showing beautiful spalting.

Tree Stump with Camera-Shy Ants - 30 Days Wild Tree Stump with Spalting - 30 Days Wild

A wild patch left unmown in my local park. Once again, this was hard to capture on camera, but it was beautiful. The long grasses waved enchantingly in the wind and their numerous awns gave them a pretty, fluffy appearance.

Abundant Waving Grasses - 30 Days Wild

So what are the take-home messages from my first wild day?

1. Wildlife lives all around us, so having a wildlife encounter really is just a matter of taking the time to notice what’s already there. Some of it is so commonplace and familiar that we hardly see it, and some of it is so small that we need to take the trouble to find it. Not much trouble, mind, but some nonetheless.

2. Untidiness equals diversity. I saw far more different plants in untended verges and derelict grounds than in any of the (admittedly lovely) tidy gardens I passed. And I’m sure there were many more insects and other animals keeping a low profile among the chaos than I managed to find.

I enjoyed my walk a lot. Maybe I should do the same activity for each of my 30 days wild, or at least the ones where I’m working. Instead of just plugging in to an audiobook and trudging home at top speed, I’ll take the trouble to notice the wildlife around me at different times of day and in different weather conditions on my walk home. It’ll be kind of an impressionist approach to nature.

How will you be spending your wild June days?