The Nature of Eureka


Grass is greener when it’s brown

I view grasses as a crypto-conundrum. A couple of weeks in May or June, when grasses bloom, I get an allergic reaction to grass pollen. Itchy, swollen irritated eyes, and sneezing fits spoil joy on lovely spring days.

My adolescent rebellious period was sparked by endless hours walking back and forth in two foot-wide straight lines or in endless concentric circles. Resentful of this pointless waste of time, I grew to hate lawn mowers as evidenced by three rusting mower hulks hidden by tall brown grasses in my backyard. By the time I was in my late teens, my allergy to grass pollen bloomed, no doubt triggered by a strong psychosomatic component. Alas, the grass won my battle against the worthless task of walking behind a lawn mower.

You want me to identify a plant? I respond, “I don’t do grasses.” This year is the year that I will overcome my scorn of grasses. Oh yes, I have a collection of books about grasses, many of which have collected dust for decades (probably in the form of grass pollen).

This year, this year, I will begin to learn the language of grasses. Oh no, grasses don’t just have stems. No, those are culms, with leaves (ligules) attached not by a stalk, but by a vegetative junction with specialized parts – a sheath, an auricle, and a collar substending a distinct node. No, the flower is not just a flower, it’s a spikelet adorned with a collection of florets, with an upper glume, a lower glume, lemma and palea, all attached to a rachilla.

What? Yes, grasses have their own special technical language one must learn to master the niche of identifying the 11,000+ grass species. This year I at least commit to Google grasses; beats mowing them.

Winter is a good time to make this commitment since there is very little grass photosynthesizing into visual seas of green. No, right now grasses are adorned in aesthetically-rich shades of brown. I saw a brown grass last Sunday and took the plunge. I figured it out. You’ve all seen it. It’s an architectural beauty — wild oats, river oats, broadleaf spike grass or the silly oxymoron “inland sea oats.”

Or, if there’s an inland sea here, I seem to have missed it. Botanists call it Chasmanthium latifolium, and it becomes the first lateral leap over my lifelong chasm to find graminaceous meaning in life. Ya, that’s a word.