Saturday, September 26, 2009

Appreciating Adirondack Grasses

Are you one of those people who, when driving down the Northway, notices the various colors of the grasses growing in the median? If you aren’t, then you should slow down a bit and take a peek, for this time of year, especially in the early morning sunshine, they are quite beautiful: clouds of delicate purples, patches of russet oranges. I find it very tempting to pull over, get out of the car, and wade in amongst them. Since I’m sure the state troopers are not as likely to share my enthusiasm, I never have.

Grasses have caught my attention for years. They have wonderful flowerheads (inflorescences) that come in a great many varieties, and the colors, when seen en masse, can be quite the delight for the eye. I actually love to see lawns that have been allowed to go wild, for they fill an otherwise boring green expanse with delightful colors and textures.

Recently I was out botanizing with a friend who, among other things, really knows her grasses and sedges. Most of us wouldn’t know the difference between a grass, a sedge, or a rush if our lives depended on it. Sure, perhaps we recall the rhyme “Sedges have edges and rushes are round, and grasses have nodules where elbows are found” (or some variation thereof), but in practice, they all look like “grass” to the untrained eye. I asked my botanically-inclined friend if she knew of any good books for grass ID, but she said no.

I, however, have two grass ID books in my rather large collection of natural history books. One I’ve had in my Naturalist Daypack for quite some time, but I’ve never taken the time to actually read it. Until now. Inspired by my friend’s knowledge, and never one to want to be left behind in the proverbial dust, I decided to crack the book and learn me some grasses.

As with many natural history and species ID adventures, at first it seemed intimidating, an almost insurmountable task. They all look the same! I’ll never be able to tell them apart! But by taking the time to actually read the text, the small details, those clues that tell one species from the next, soon become apparent.

To begin with, many sedges, but not all, have triangular stems (edges). Many rushes have cylindrical, or round, stems. And grasses, as a whole, have joints, or nodules, where their leaves join the stem. After learning this, you can start to study some of the other distinguishing factors. The book I’m currently reading, Grasses by Lauren Brown, starts off with a dichotomous key, which many people find intimidating, but which I find a relief to use. From there, she’s grouped the plants by visual similarities. The simple pen and ink illustrations point out key traits for quick identification. Unlike many ID guides (try some of the moss or fern books), this one is written for the layperson. Technical jargon is explained – it’s not assumed you are working towards your PhD in botanical sciences.

The only real “work” will be memorizing the scientific names. Most real botanists forego common names and with good reason: they are not standardized. What you may call Indian Paintbrush is known as Hawkweed to someone else, and that person applies Indian Paintbrush to an entirely different plant. But the reason for learning the scientific names goes beyond this, for many grasses (sedges, rushes) and other plants, like mosses and lichens, have no common names. The common man has given most of them very little attention, and if you aren’t paying attention to something, you aren’t going to give it a name. If it weren’t for the scientists, these plants would have no names at all.

I think that for some time now Grasses will join my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide as a passenger in my car. I’m actually eager, now that I have inspiration, to get out in the field and start getting to know my grassy neighbors. Armed with my field guide and a hand lens, I hope to soon have names like Anthoxanthum ordoratum and Cyperus esculentus tripping off my tongue.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





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