| What comes to mind when you think of grass? Probably a lawn.
Some of us might imagine waving prairies; a few will think of burning
Cannabis. Actually, civilization would collapse without grasses. By a
great margin, humanity's main food source, directly and indirectly, is
grass. Recall bread, Wheaties, Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies, and Oatmeal.
Even dairy products and beef depend on grass-eating animals. Four of the
top five food plants on the globe are grasses (potato is the fifth).
We use grasses for pasture and hay, lawns, erosion-control and ornament.
Sugarcane, bamboos, fiber grasses and miscellaneous kinds round out
the impressive list.
| Seattle's wild grasses are a fascinating, little known subject. More
than 100 different kinds of grasses have been noted in a wild state in
Seattle. This figure includes some 40 or fewer native species, found in
varied habitats, and mostly non-natives, hailing from elsewhere in America
or Europe. Bamboos are woody grasses, and although they persist
and spread once planted, they can scarcely be called wild since they
don't plant themselves.
| Some grasses grow just about anywhere. For example,
Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) can be a lawn constituent, a flowerbed
weed, grow in shady parks among ferns, or along saltwater shores. But
our native Mannagrass (Glyceria elata) is usually seen only in company
of skunk cabbage, lady fern, sedges and salmonberries in damp
shady woods. There it grows up to 7 feet tall, an elegant and handsome plant.
| Seattle's largest grass is reed
(Phragmites communis). Frequently 12 feet tall, reed is a colony-forming bold giant of low, wet areas in
Union Bay and the Duwamish River. On Kellogg Island nearly a solid acre of
it exists, striking in its blue-green color and impressive stature. To
walk through such a "grove," seeing nothing on all sides but grass over
one's head, hearing only a swishing rustle of foliage, is a rare treat. It helps
us guess what an ant in a lawn must feel like.
| Some grasses are well described by their names: hairgrass,
crabgrass, stinkgrass, velvet grass, foxtail, rabbit-foot. But bluegrass is
not blue. The grass originally owning the genuine American vernacular name
bluegrass was Poa compressa, an Old World import, strikingly
pale yellow-green. But after the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe in Indiana Territory
(where William Henry Harrison derived enough fame to elect him President
in 1840 with the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too") some
Kentucky soldiers (it is said) returning to their limestone regions, brought
with them some Poa pratensis starts, for they much admired this grass. At
the time this species was called Green Grass. Anyway, the way it throve
in Kentucky and Tennessee was famous. Kentucky became the
Bluegrass State and American book writers made all
Poa species serve under the inapt bluegrass name.
|(originally published in The Seattle Weekly, September 1996)