February 4, 2012

Grasses are probably the most widely occurring plants of the world. They exist in almost every climate except the frigid atmospheres of the Poles, the crests of the highest mountain ranges and in the most arid of deserts. Grasses generate prodigious amounts of seed and have for millennia made it possible for mammals and many other kinds of animals to live on the planet.

Yet, because of their ubiquitous nature, they are also probably the most taken for granted of all plant types. If you live in the country where grass occurs as a blanket across the undeveloped land, how often do you stop to examine it or recognize its innate beauty? I would bet rarely if at all. If we don’t ascribe a constructive purpose to a plant it is reduced to the negative appellation “weed”.  Many wild and native grasses are indeed weeds, too profligate and common to be appreciated but, on closer inspection, they are also marvels of structural adaptation and tenacious survival ability.

In a small amount of space on a roadside you can encounter many dozens of different varieties cohabiting in environments where other plants fail. Each grass has developed a distinct means to hasten its survival and all the clues to those means are visible just by examination of the plant’s characteristics. As is true elsewhere, form follows function, and never is it more apparent than in a grass plant. Whether it be a giant bamboo with a lifespan of close to 100 years or a lowly annual that grows to produce its seed and die within a few short months.

My fascination with grasses was sparked by an encounter with a client’s “weed” bamboo. In this case the grass was a large stand of one of the most popular of all ornamental bamboos, Psuedosasa japonica; one of the plants responsible for giving bamboo such a bad reputation among uneducated gardeners. Many temperate bamboos are “runners” and, without containment, that is exactly what they will do across your property. Just like their ground-bound cousins, the fescues and other lawn grasses, many bamboos spread by rhizomes. The rhizome’s purpose is to conquer the surrounding area and obtain as much nutrient base as possible to grow denser and taller. In garden parlance running bamboos are known as “thugs”; a thug being someone who moves into the neighborhood and through crass and demanding behavior proceeds to take over from more genteel and orderly plants.

At the time I was instructed to remove this plant from my client’s yard I was completely unfamiliar with bamboos and their thuggish reputation. I just saw a stately and beautiful group of straight stems spearing at the sky and covered with attractive deep green blade-like foliage. I was immediately smitten. So I took some of these canes home and, on a very hot day in August, worked to convince my then wife that they would make a beautiful addition to the landscape of our small back yard. Meanwhile, the plants dried out while they were laying on our front lawn. So little did I know about transplanting bamboos that I didn’t even provide them with moisture or cover. Despite this, I planted those stems later that afternoon and within a couple of years had become a passionate devotee of the joys and wonders of bamboos as the Arrow Bamboo (the plant’s common name) proceded to claim its territory of the back yard.

The love of grasses is as insidious as their means of spreading and seems, for some not entirely known reason, to befall mostly the male of the species. Few women are attracted to bamboo the way men are. Grasses have features that are easy for men to relate to, but I think the primary attraction is one most men would rather not admit. Bamboo in particular, of all the grass family, is not just strong but amazingly phallic in structure. Especially, when it first shoots up through the ground. It is as if the plant has a new erection or series of erections. Mere mortals are dumbstruck with envy.

Each culm, the proper name for a growing bamboo cane, reaches its full size, length, and girth in one season and never increases in its dimensions once it stops growing at the end of the season. Unlike lawn grass that can be cut in a similar manner to your hair, once the bamboo culm is cut it will not grow any higher or increase in its girth. It may, depending on where it is cut, continue to produce leaves, but it will grow no further. However, with a sufficient root base, the plant will produce new culms that will surpass the dimensions of the previous year’s crop. This growth habit is what makes bamboo a valuable renewable crop in Asia.

Here in the States there are many types of native grasses of all sizes though only one native bamboo, Canebrake (Arundinaria gigantea). Canebrake, at one time, was responsible for holding back annual flood waters until humans in their infinite wisdom cut the ancient groves down and fed them to their land-destroying feed animals. But, since the middle of the 19th Century, plant collectors have introduced Asian bamboo to America and those plants have spread in growth and use far more than the native Canebrake.

In Port Townsend bamboo abounds. It is almost impossible to find a block of houses in this town where at least one home owner hasn’t planted bamboo and ornamental grasses have become every bit as ubiquitous. Few good gardens don’t have some example of a grass growing in them. There are new cultivars and varietals entering the market every year. I see new sedges in online catalogs every spring. On the other hand, new bamboos are few and far between because of how the plant reproduces. Many of the most common ornamental bamboos (Phyllostachys nigra (Black Bamboo) and Phyllostachys aurea (Golden Bamboo) among them) bloom once in a period of 60 to 100 years and new bamboos develop in nature only when a set of circumstances come together in such a rare manner as to enable one to be created. That aside their are many beautiful and useful varieties available for every garden as long as the plant’s needs are met. One surefire way to control the rampant spread of bamboo is to fail to give it what it needs to flourish. Cut off the water supply, crowd the plant, and give it poor soil and it will refuse to spread. Give it ample water, room to fill, and nutrient dense soil and you have a problem child with no understanding of boundaries. Still, the only real problems gardeners will have with bamboos and large ornamental grasses is limiting growth and spread. The rewards of growing these hardy wonders far exceed those relatively easy-to-handle flaws.

In later posts, I will publish some of my many photographs of bamboos, ornamental, and wild grasses. I will also write more on the many advantages to becoming familiar with grasses as the wonderful organisms they are.

All images Copyright 2012 by G. W. German


2 Responses to “Grass”

  1. Scott Marckx Says:

    This makes me wonder what the native grasses (and other plants)of the Port Townsend prairies are? I’ve noticed several different types of grasses coming up in our garden and around our neighborhood, but I don’t know enough to tell which is which. Thank you for opening another door. Now I need to learn some more…

    • picturingpt Says:

      There are hundreds of varieties growing in all the small and varied ecosystems nearby. Many of them are endangered. There were many different grain grasses that were wiped out of existence by the Western march of mankind and the feed animals humans chose to bring with them. Grasses that had relationships with buffalo and antelope and helped to support important ecosystems are now completely gone. Wherever cattle and wheat became the predominant crops our natural environment paid an impossible-to-repair price.

      Thanks for commenting. Get out and take a good look at all the wonder around you before it is gone, too.

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