Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The grass of the field

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In the early summer, our woods and meadows are feathered by numerous flowering grasses, which form objects of great interest to the botanist and the artist. Yet comparatively few avail themselves of the great pleasure which these elegant plants offer. Flowers are eagerly culled for the tasteful bouquet, but seldom does a group of flowers present so light and graceful a contour as a group of grasses. Ferns and sea-weeds are patiently studied, and grasses are neglected, though these latter are much more easy of classification, more beautiful as dried specimens, and as valuable in cultivation and in our drawing-room vase. These graceful plants, however, are gradually receiving more attention from the fancy gardener; bunches of Pampas grass wave their pennons on our lawns, and lift high their panicles of glossy florets; and the Hare’s tail, Panick, and Quaking-grasses alternate with flowers in the gay borders. In Germany and Switzerland we find grass bouquets in every drawing-room, and dried ones for the winter, retaining their own soft colouring, not disfigured by gaudy tints, as we see in the dyed bunches sold in our bazaars.

Hoping to tempt the lovers of nature to turn their attention to this much-neglected tribe of plants, I venture to offer them some remarks on their history. A grass is the simplest form of a perfect plant. From a fibrous root a slender stem shoots up, clothed with alternate leaves, which are long and narrow, and have the veins running side by side from one end to the other. In the true grasses the stems are round and hollow, and the sheaths of the leaves open at one side; but in their cousins the sedges, the stems are solid and angular, and the leaf-sheaths form perfect cylinders. The highest leaf on the stem of the grass acts as a cradle for the buds until they are sufficiently formed to emerge to the open day. In the sedges the male and female parts of the flower, that is, the stamens and pistils, are on separate spikes, or, at any rate, in separate florets. Both sedges and grasses have three stamens, and most of them two pistils. The sedges have no calyx or corolla; the male flowers are accompanied by a tiny leaf or bract, and the female by a few bristles.

The graceful forms adorning our woods and river margins,—bending and drooping in every variety of easy curve under the weight of pendulous catkins, or rising into stronger independence where the seed-spikes are erect, and their increasing size requires support—belong to this sedge family, as do also the lordly bullrushes, lifting their proud heads from the river’s depths, and the dark-tinted catkins called by the poets “Long Purples.” Their past history is more important than their present one; they supplied the paper of the Egyptians, the ark of Moses, and the boats of Abyssinia; now their qualties are chiefly celebrated by the Waterhen and Sedge Warbler, excepting when a tasteful hand groups them with flowers and grasses for the decoration of a sitting-room.

The Wood-sedge, with its delicate green leaves and loose pendulous catkins; the larger and still more drooping pond-haunter, the Cypérus-sedge, and the erect common sedge, are familiar examples of this widely-extended family; in all of these the female flowers occupy the lower catkins, and the male ones are placed on that at the summit.

The well-known family of the Cotton-grasses belong to this sedge order. Here the bracts wrap over one another, protecting the florets, in which both the stamens and pistils are contained; in this family there is but one pistil to a floret. But it is not in its flowering time that the Cotton-grass attracts our attention,—the little yellow stamens shed their pollen unheeded,—it is when the seed is formed, accompanied by its long tufts of white silky hairs, that it becomes an emblem for poet’s fancy, and all human fairness is supposed to gain in charm by being likened to the “Cana-grass of the Moor.” The downy tufts of the single-headed species (Erisphorum vaginatum) are highly ornamental, dotted among the purple Ling; but still more attractive is the clustering beauty of the narrow-leaved cotton-grass (E. angustifolium), scarcely less frequent than the other where the ground is swampy. There are several smaller and rarer species, but these are the most important.

Common English grasses (OAW).png
  1. Common Sedge.
  2. Cypérus Sedge.
  3. Meadow Fox-tail.
  4. Canary Grass.
  5. Millet Grass
  6. Meadow Grass.
  7. Cock’s-foot Grass.
  8. Meadow Fescue Grass.
  9. Quaking Grass.
  10. Rough Brome Grass.

In the true grasses the flower consists of glumes and paleo, answering to the calyx and corolla of other plants; both may be described as chaffy scales. The stamens are always three, with one exception, and form a prominent feature of the flower, giving the spike or panicle an appearance of extraordinary beauty during their brief continuance. The pistils are generally two. One other appendage accompanies the flowers of grass, a bristle or awn. The one exception to the three stamens is in the case of the sweet vernal grass. Here there are two stamens and two pistils. The florets are longer than their awns, the stamens longer still, bearing purple anthers; and the spike gives out sweet fragrance in drying.

The Mat-grass (Nardus stricta) forms the one exception to the two pistils; it has narrow leaves growing in a thick mat, and narrow spikes containing one row of florets, which throw out a fringe of purple anthers. It frequents moors and hill pastures.

All the other grasses have three stamens and two pistils, and we must look for their distinguishing marks in the glumes and paleo.

First we have a large group where the two or three glumes enclose a single floret only. To this belong the rounded spikes of the Fox-tail grasses (Alope curus), raised proudly, all covered with orange anthers, and lording it over meadow or cornfield or sludgy marsh; the similarly-formed Cat’s-tails (Phleum) of lower growth and purple anthers, tenants of the meadow, the pasture, and the sea-shore; the Canary grasses (Phalaris), the one with its rounded head and broad, overlapping, beautifully-striped glumes; the other with its panicles of soft florets waving by the river-side among the sedges, its relatives; the green Beard-grasses (Polypogon) of the sea-shore and salt marsh; the feathery Millet-grass (Milium), raising spreading panicles in such abundance as to form a green cloud over the brushwood; the Bent-grass (Agrostis), with its silky panicles adorning the field-path and hill-side and woodland; the Finger-grass (Digitaria), with its many spikes and purple glumes: and the Dog’s-tooth-grass (Cynodon), of similar habit, shyly frequenting our southern shores.

Next comes a group with two or three florets to each pair of glumes. Here we have the elegant Hair-grasses (Aira), with such fine stems and airy panicles, that pencil can hardly imitate their lightness; these have members of great beauty in the woods, the fields, and on the river-bank: the Melic grass (Melica), one of our earliest grasses, remarkable for its broad, delicately-tinted foliage and purple fly-like florets; the Soft-grass (Holcus), with a crowded panicle of pink-tinged downy florets, and soft, hairy leaves; the green Panick-grasses (Panicum), with elaborate and compact panicles, often cultivated in gardens for their verdant appearance; the early flowering blue Sesleria, the tenant of chalky hills; the familiar Quaking-grass (Briza); the no less familiar Meadow-grass (Poa), common as a weed in our gardens, and, in many species, an important contributor to the richness of the meadow; the nearly allied Sweet-grass (Glyceria), its many florets headed by the two glumes, and forming little spikelets on the panicle,—these frequent chiefly watery places, though there are species which prefer the hill-side, or dry wall; the Cock’s-foot-grass (Dactylus), with its coarse herbage and distantly-branched panicle, the stem resembling the claws of a cock’s foot; the Fescue-grass (Festuca), with its graceful panicles adorning meadow, pasture, wood, and waste ground; the Dog’s-tail-grass (Cynosurus), with its one-sided spike; the Brome grass (Bromus), its solid spikes in erect or most gracefully drooping panicles, often attaining great height, and vying with the Cypérus-sedge in elegance of curve; the Oat-grass (Avena), represented by the true oat, and, with members of various size, tenants of the meadow, the corn-field and the woodland; and the Reeds (Arundo), the graceful ornaments of our ponds and river-banks, with their large panicles of glossy florets, the paleo surrounded by long, soft hairs, which give a woolly appearance to the clusters when in seed, almost vying with those of the Cotton-grass.

Lastly, we have a group where the florets are fixed on a jointed common stalk, one pair of glumes containing many florets. To this group belong the Darnel-grass (Solium), with its long spike beset by little spikelets on either side the stem; the Hand-grass, with its spike tapering, and its stem twisted into angular elbows, an inhabitant of sea-side pastures; the Wheat-grass (Triticum) raising its rounded spikes in the meadow or corn-field, or on the sea-shore; the Barley (Hordeum), of bearded respectability, its meadow and waste-ground species claiming relationship with the dignified occupant of the cultivated field; and the Lyme-grass (Elymus), whose lordly spikes adorn the sand-banks, while its roots form them into sea-barriers.

Among these numerous genera, each with their group of species bearing a family likeness, while possessed of individual beauties, we have many members of interest and utility. The rounded head of the Canary-grass affords food for the domestic birds so (sometimes over) liberal with their song, while a striped variety of its brother, the Reed-canary-grass, is a familiar and welcome garden-plant, affording us beautiful flags of “ribbon-grass” for our nosegays.

The Dog’s-tooth-grass, though only interesting here as a rare plant, is of high value in India, being held sacred as “Doob-grass” by the Brahmins; it is the only grass there at all calculated for lawns, and the European settlers employ the natives to collect the plants from the plains for this purpose.

The Panick-grasses, found rarely in our fields, but cultivated in our gardens, are charming for bouquets, making a perfect contrast with the more diffuse and pink-tinted panicles of the soft grass; but their great interest consists in their near relationship to the Millets of India, important there as our corn is here; and the Panick-grasses of Brazil and Jamaica are valuable as pasturage.

Of the wide-spread uses of the Cereal grasses we hardly need to speak. From the time of the Exodus, wheat has furnished the staff of life to man, and received frequent mention in the history of all temperate climates, affording to the inhabitants of such countries the most reliable article of food. Even its “good-for-nothing brother,” the Couch-grass, though generally execrated as a troublesome weed, has so nutritious a root that it afforded nourishment to our forefathers in time of famine, and when boiled will always form good food for pigs.

Barley was much more universally used in ancient times than it is now. It is valuable as being able to bear great extremes of temperature. In hot countries two crops are grown in one year. On the Continent it is still much used for bread, but we prefer it as malt.

The oat is the grain easiest of cultivation; a cold climate suits it best, and we get our best oatmeal from Scotland and Friesland. It is much used in these countries for porridge and oatcake.

Rye is chiefly grown as a green crop here, but a portion of the meal mixed in brown bread is a great advantage; it is subject to the fungus-disease, called ergot, terrible maladies, and even death, resulting from eating ergotted rye. The fungus swells the grain to twice its natural length, causing it to assume the form of a black horn.

The common rice (Oryza sativa), belongs to the grass family, and holds as important a place in the economy of nature in the tropics, as wheat does in temperate regions. It produces a very large crop, one acre affording from thirty to sixty bushels. Rice flourishes best on low lands where the moisture is abundant.

Noble as is the stature of the Pampas and Tussac grasses, they are out-done by the lord of grasses, the Sugar-cane,—handsome plants attaining a height of sometimes twenty feet. The stem is divided by the joints with which we are familiar, and from each of which sprouts a long narrow leaf. The florets are feathery, like those of our reeds.

Many species of cane are of great utility, their sap yielding sugar, their stems forming furniture, thatch, and, in the smaller species, pens. The cane is propagated by cuttings; these, planted about March, are fit to be cut in September or October. The plants only need to be renewed once in four or five years.

Thus we find grasses most important to man and beast, and, though humble in name, distinguished in beauty and grace, varying but slightly in general characteristics, and therefore easy to study, changing little by time, and so easy to preserve. Dear public, deign to look upon modest worth; take a little pains and trouble, and let our Grasses have a fair share of attention.