Getting to Know a Grass – Basic Anatomy and Identification

Have you ever tried to identify a grass? Most of us who like to look at plants and learn their names will probably admit that we often give up on grasses pretty quickly, or just ignore them entirely. They aren’t the easiest plants to identify to species, and there are so many of them. Without close inspection, they can all look pretty similar. Their flowers aren’t particularly showy, and their fruits are fairly forgettable. They are strands or clumps of green that create a backdrop for more intriguing forms of vegetation. Yet, they are among the most ecologically and economically important groups of plants on the planet. And actually, if you can ascend the hurdles that come with getting to know them, they are beautiful organisms and really quite amazing.

Kōura in the Grass

The grass family – Poaceae – consists of nearly 8oo genera and about 12,000 species. Grasses occur in a wide range of habitats across the globe. Wherever you are on land, a grass is likely nearby. Grasses play vital roles in their ecosystems and, from a human perspective, are critical to life as we know it. We grow them for food, use them for building materials and fuel, plant them as ornamentals, and rely on them for erosion control, storm water management, and other ecosystem services. We may not acknowledge their presence most of the time, but we very likely wouldn’t be here without them.

The sheer number of grass species is one thing that makes them so difficult to identify. Key identifying features of grasses and grass-like plants (also known as graminoids) tend to be very small and highly modified compared to similar features on other flowering plants. This requires using a hand lens and learning a whole new vocabulary in order to begin to understand a grass’s anatomy. It’s a time commitment that goes beyond a lot of other basic plant identification, and it’s a learning curve that few dare to follow. However, once you learn the basic features, it becomes clear that grasses are relatively simple organisms, and once you start identifying them, it can actually be an exciting and rewarding experience.

Quackgrass (Elymus repens) and Its Rhizome

Depending on the species, grasses can be annuals – completing their life cycle within a single year – or perennials – coming back year after year for two or more years. Most grasses have a fibrous root system; some are quite shallow and simple while others are extremely deep and extensive. Some species of perennial grasses spread by either rhizomes (underground stems), stolons (horizontal, above ground stems), or both. Some grasses also produce tillers, which are essentially daughter plants that form at the base of the plant. The area where roots, rhizomes, stolons, and tillers meet the shoots and leaves of a grass plant is called the crown. This is an important region of the plant, because it allows for regrowth even after the plant has been browsed by a grazing animal or mown down by a lawn mower.

The stem or shoot of a grass is called a culm. Leaves are formed along the lengths of culms, and culms terminate in inflorescences. Leaves originate at swollen sections of the culm called nodes. They start by wrapping around the culm and forming what is called a leaf sheath. Leaves of grasses are generally long and narrow with parallel venation – a trait typical of monocotyledons. The part of the leaf that extends away from the culm is called the leaf blade or lamina. Leaves are alternatively arranged along the length of the stem and are two-ranked, meaning they form two distinct rows opposite of each other along the stem.

The area where the leaf blade meets the leaf sheath on the culm is called the collar. This collar region is important for identifying grasses. With the help of a hand lens, a closer look reveals the way in which the leaf wraps around the culm (is it open or closed?), whether or not there are hairs present and what they are like, if there are auricles (small flaps of leaf tissue at the top of the collar), and what the ligule is like. The ligule is a thin membrane (sometimes a row of hairs) that forms around the culm where the leaf blade and leaf sheath intersect. The size of the ligule and what its margin is like can be very helpful in identifying grasses.

The last leaf on the culm before the inflorescence is called the flag leaf, and the section of the culm between the flag leaf and the inflorescence is called a peduncle. Like the collar, the flower head of a grass is where you’ll find some of the most important features for identification. Grass flowers are tiny and arranged in small groupings called spikelets. In general, several dozen or hundreds of spikelets make up an inflorescence. They can be non-branching and grouped tightly together at the top of the culm, an inflorescence referred to as a spike, or they can extend from the tip of the culm (or rachis) on small branches called pedicels, an inflorescence referred to as a raceme. They can also be multi-branched, which is the most common form of grass inflorescence and is called a panicle.

Either way, you will want to take an even closer look at the individual spikelets. Two small bracts, called glumes, form the base of the spikelet. Above the glumes are a series of florets, which are enclosed in even smaller bracts – the outer bract being the lemma and the inner bract being the palea. Certain features of the glumes, lemmas, and paleas are specific to a species of grass. This includes the way they are shaped, the presence of hairs, their venation, whether or not awns are present and what the awns are like, etc. If the grass species is cleistogamous – like cheatgrass – and the florets never open, you will not get a look at the grass’s sex parts. However, a close inspection of an open floret is always a delight. A group of stamens protrude from their surrounding bracts bearing pollen, while feathery stigmas reach out to collect the pollen that is carried on the wind. Depending on the species, an individual grass floret can have either only stamens, only pistils (the stigma bearing organs), or both. Fertilized florets form fruits. The fruit of a grass is called a caryopsis (with a few exceptions) and is indistinguishable from the seed. This is because the seed coat is fused to the wall of the ovary, unlike other fruit types in which the two are separate and distinct.

If all this doesn’t make you want to run outside and take a close look at some grasses, I don’t know what will. What grasses can you identify in your part of the world? Let me know in the comment section below or check out the linktree and get in touch by the means that suits you best.


Eating Weeds: Dandelion Flowers

Mention weeds, and the first plant most of us think of is dandelion. It is essentially the poster child when it comes to weeds and one of the few weeds that entire books have been written about. Its notoriety partly comes from being so ubiquitous and recognizable, but it also comes from its utility. It has a long history of being used medicinally and culinarily, and, surprising to some I’m sure, is still grown agriculturally today.

Dandelion is an attractive and useful plant whose main offense is being so accomplished and proficient at staying alive, reproducing, and moving itself around. The principal thing it gets accused of is invading our lawns. With its brightly colored flowers on tall stalks and its globe of feathery seeds, it makes itself obvious, unlike other lawn invaders that tend to blend in more. Once it makes itself at home, it refuses to leave, adding to the frustration. Consider the vats of herbicide that have been applied to turf grass in an attempt to wipe out dandelions. The fact that they hang around, taunting those who care about that sort of thing, helps explain why they are so hated.

common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

As Ken Thompson writes in The Book of Weeds, dandelions are “too familiar to need describing,” and since there is already so much written about them, I don’t feel the need to write much myself. Below, instead, are a few excerpts from a handful of books that discuss them.

“It seems many of us possess a conscious will not to believe anything good about this remarkable harbinger of spring which, by its ubiquity and persistance, make it the most recognized and most hated of all ‘weeds.'” — The Dandelion Celebration by Peter Gail

“Dandelion heads consist entirely of overlapping ray florets. … Each floret has its own male and female organs, the (female) style surmounting the (male) stamens. Stamens are unnecessary, however, for the plant to produce seed; much, if not most dandelion seed reproduction occurs asexually (apomixis), without pollen fertilization or any genetic involvement of male cells. But insect pollination (each floret produces abundant nectar in its tubular base) and self-pollination, plus vegetative reproduction via sprouting of new plants from roots and root fragments, also occurs – so this plant has all reproductive fronts covered, surely an important reason for its wide abundance and distribution.” — The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

“Wild violets are too limp and their flowers to insipidly small, too prone to damp, dark corners, as if lacking upright amour propre; in contrast, dandelions are too lush and healthy, their vigorous, indestructible roots, gaudy flowers, and too-plentiful seed heads all too easily spawned with their easygoing means of reproduction by parachute-like seeds, landing where they will, suggesting something of human sexual profligacy.” — Weeds by Nina Edwards

Charles Voysey “The Furrow” (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

“Dandelions demonstrate evolution in action on suburban lawns. Over several seasons of mowing, the only dandelions that can flower are short-stemmed plants that duck the blade. Mowing thus becomes a selective factor, and in time most of the yard’s surviving dandelion flowers hug the ground.” — The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

“When you stop seeing them as villains, many weeds can be considered as useful plants and certainly have been in the past. Dandelions produce fresh, green leaves nearly all year round. They make a nice addition to a salad, although most people find them too bitter to eat in any quantity. … Dandelion roots are edible too, and have been used in the past as a coffee substitute. If you can find some nice fat burdock roots to go with them, you could even make your own old-fashioned dandelion and burdock drink.” — The Alternative Kitchen Garden by Emma Cooper

“Early medieval Arabian physicians recognized the medicinal properties of dandelion, recorded in Egyptian tombs and described by Theophrastus. Its diuretic effects are mirrored in the common names of pissabed and the French pissenlit; it is recommended for the liver, kidneys, and gallbladder, and even for the treatment of diabetes. In India it is also a traditional remedy for snakebites and its milky sap is said to cure surface tumors and warts, and even unsightly moles and freckles.” — Weeds by Nina Edwards

I ate dandelion flowers blended up with eggs and cooked like scrambled eggs. Its a simple recipe that I adapted from instructions found in the The Dandelion Celebration by Peter Gail. The flowers taste more or less the way they smell. They have a bitterness to them that is akin to their leaves but isn’t nearly as strong. I have eaten dandelion leaves several times and I like them, so the bitterness doesn’t really bother me. If I were to make this again I would use a higher egg to dandelion flower ratio, because even though I enjoyed the flavor, it was a little strong.

Eating Weeds: Burdock

If we agree that weeds can be famous while simultaneously being infamous, a list of famous weeds must include burdock. Its fame largely comes from being an inspiration for the hook-and-loop fastener, Velcro. The idea for this revolutionary product came when Swiss inventor, George de Mestral, was removing burs – the dried inflorescences of burdock – from his dog in the early 1940’s. Most of us have experienced this, pulling out burs from animal hair or our own clothing, but few have felt inspired to develop a new product. Infamy reigns supreme.

But burdock’s fame isn’t tied to Velcro. Its tenacious, sticky burs, which house the seeds, have been attaching themselves to humans and other animals for centuries, frustrating those who have to remove them but finding new places to grow in the process. And what better way to pay tribute to this phenomenon than to dress oneself in hundreds of burs and parade around town calling yourself the Burry Man? Lest you think I’m crazy, just such a thing has been part of an annual celebration for over 300 years in a town outside of Edinburgh, Scotland.

burs of common burdock (Arctium minus)

Of course, burdock is more than its burs. Other, perhaps less celebrated features, are its edible roots and shoots. Its leaves are also edible, but most people find them too bitter to bother. Green Deane suggests wrapping the leaves around food to cook on a campfire. Both the roots and shoots can be eaten raw or cooked, and the fermented roots along with dandelion roots are traditional ingredients in the British beverage, dandelion and burdock. The roots, shoots, and leaves of burdock have also had a wide variety of medicinal uses.

Two species of burdock have become naturalized in North America – Arctium minus and Arctium lappa. Both species are biennials or short-lived perennials. They start out as rosettes of large leaves with woolly undersides. The leaves grow to a foot or more long and wide. At this stage burdock is similar in appearance to rhubarb. Burdock has a large taproot, which can extend down to three feet in the ground. The taproot continues to grow as the rosette expands. When the plant has reached a certain size it begins to put up a branching flower stalk. It is in the rosette stage, before the plant bolts, that the taproot should be harvested.

As the flower stalk grows, the plant takes on a pyramidal shape, with the leaves along the stalk getting increasingly smaller with height. The plant can reach several feet tall, with one source describing them as towering up to ten feet. The stalks should be harvested before the plants start flowering. Multiple flower heads are produced at the ends of the branching stalk. The inflorescences are composed of purple, tubular, disc florets that are encased and encircled in a series of hooked bracts. The flower heads resemble thistle flowers, but the plant is easy to distinguish from thistles due to its large, soft leaves. Speaking of the leaves, one photographer found them alluring enough to compile a series of photos of them.

Common burdock (Arctium minus): the woolly undersides of the leaves and the tops of the taproots

While burdock can be nuisance plant, it is not particularly noxious. In The Book of Field and Roadside, John Eastman writes, “Burdock cannot be labeled a truly invasive weed, for it rarely intrudes into cultivated fields. Tilling usually controls and eradicates burdock populations. Its favored havens are the disturbed soils of roadsides, railroads, fence rows, vacant lots, and around sheds and old buildings.” In Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, Peter Del Tredici also comments on burdock’s preference for minimally maintained locations including “vacant lots and rubble dump sites; the edges of emergent woodlands; the sunny borders of freshwater wetlands, ponds, and streams; and on unmowed highway banks and median strips with frequent salt applications.”

I harvested my burdock roots along an unmaintained fence line surrounding a series of raised flower beds. I chose a simple recipe for making burdock chips that involved peeling the roots, cutting them into thin slices, dressing them with olive oil and salt, and baking them in the oven. Since the author of this recipe mentioned buying burdock from a store, they were probably using Arctium lappa, or greater burdock, which is commonly cultivated, especially in Asian countries. Both species can be prepared in similar ways.

burdock roots

The burdock chips had a pleasant nutty flavor, but they were also a little stringy and tough to chew. If I were to do it again, I would probably use a recipe like this one that involves parboiling and then frying. Sierra suggested grating the roots and frying them in bacon grease, which would probably do the trick. There are also recipes for pickled burdock roots, which would be fun to try.

Because the plants I harvested were still in their rosette stage and there weren’t any other plants in the area that were bolting, I didn’t try the shoots. But I’ll keep my eye out, and when I find some I may have to write a part two.

Book Review: Grow Curious

In the early 2000’s when I was really getting excited about learning how to garden, one of the first resources I turned to was a website called You Grow Girl by Gayla Trail. I probably saw it mentioned in a zine about gardening. Something about it felt very punk rock. Trail’s site was different than other resources, and it spoke to the anti-authoritarian, non-conformist in me. Reading through the About page today, Trail’s punk rock spirit hasn’t waned, and I can see why her site appealed to me.

Now with well over two decades of gardening experience to draw from, Trail continues to run her site, has written five books (including one called You Grow Girl), and her “contemporary, laid-back approach” to gardening remains essentially the same. In her words, she “places equal importance on environmentalism, style, affordability, art, and humour.” Her “aim has always been to promote exploration, excitement, and a d.i.y approach to growing plants without the restrictions of traditional ideas about gardening.” We share these sentiments, which is why when I learned of her most recent book, Grow Curious, I knew I needed to read it.

Grow Curious by Gayla Trail accompanied by a pressed leaf from Trail’s garden.

Grow Curious is an activity book for gardeners of all ages, backgrounds, and skill levels. It diverges from most books about gardening in that it is not a how-to or a what-to-plant-where guide. It is instructional, but only in ways that are less about getting our chores done and more about helping us explore our gardens in order to see them in a new light and open our eyes to the remarkable world that is right outside our door – a world often overlooked because we have work to do. Trail’s book is also meant to reinvigorate any of us that may be a bit disillusioned by the act of gardening – having misplaced our spark along the way, lost in the drudgery of it all. It’s about stopping for a minute, looking around, and seeing things we maybe haven’t noticed before but that have been there all along.

Because Grow Curious is a compilation of garden activities (“an invitation to play”) interspersed with prose, there is no need to consume it chronologically. Activities can be done in order or chosen at random. They can be skipped altogether or done at different times of the year. The book, however, is organized by season, starting in spring and ending in winter. In this way, the story of the birth and death of the garden is told, a polarity that Trail reflects on throughout the book. In the introduction to “Fall,” she writes of the growing season coming to a close and the garden becoming “a scene of decay.” The garden’s death can help us come to terms with other deaths, including our own. On a brighter side, the return of spring can bring a newfound sense of “hope, transformation, and optimism;” along with “the energy of renewal.”

Botanical rubbings – one of dozens of creative, garden activities found in Grow Curious by Gayla Trail

The bulk of this book is a series of activities that are meant to, as the subtitle proclaims, “cultivate joy, wonder, and discovery in your garden.” In general, the instructions are minimal – a short paragraph or two; a single sentence followed by a list of things to observe or do. In this way, you have the freedom to explore and make things up as you go, without worrying about rules or whether or not you are doing it right. Activities include touching an insect, observing the shapes of leaves and stems, smelling soil, taking pictures from new and unusual angles, visiting your garden in the dead of night, et cetera. Some activities are more involved, like raising a caterpillar or researching something to death. Other activities require little effort, like pulling up some plants to see what color their roots are or tasting an edible plant part that you have never tasted before. To facilitate advanced exploration, many of the activities include ideas or ways to “Go Further.”

Among the pages of activities are Trail’s musings on gardening and life (as it relates to gardening), and I found these to be equally intriguing.  Like her thoughts on fear and insecurity: “I was inexperienced and uncertain, full of my own fears and excuses.” And her “balanced” view on pests in the garden: “Since our insect partners often depend on the so-called bad guys, it turns out that a balanced garden needs both.” Her encouragement to observe the differences between wild plants and weeds that grow within and beyond the borders of our gardens, and her plea for us to “invite wildness” in, noting the “knotty labyrinth” that exists between “wild” and “cultivated” – “social constructs that we place in opposition to each other.”

Orange roots of California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). “As you’re digging up, moving around, and planting out new crops, trees, bushes, and perennials this fall, take note of plants that have colourful roots.” — Gayla Trail

If you have been following Awkward Botany for a while, you can probably see why this book is right up my alley. If you enjoy reading Awkward Botany, this book should be right up your alley, too.