Monday, June 27, 2005

Two things I learnt this week-end

So this is how you tell Lolium perenne from Elymus repens:

1. L. perenne (ryegrass) is in your lawn, outside your door, beside every path and all the fields and verges too. E. repens (couch) is around fields, especially arable, and probably Not IN YOUR GARDEN. I can't say the books have misled me over this. The misleading goes back to me, aged about six, and someone (my grandmother, I think) telling me that that the tough creeping stalks in lawns were "couchgrass". She was unconsciously transmitting (and miscommunicating) information from a century before her time, when people lived on the land and would have spoken of couch as a much-to-be-dreaded weed. In the households of suburban Croydon (circa 1900) the memorable sound of "couch" (pronounced "cooch") was far too good to give up, so it came to be applied to troublesome grass in lawns, not so much any one species in particular as the older grasses with creeping stolons and rhizomes,which invade a newly sown lawn, replacing your tender little plantation of spears with tough, shock-headed survival specialists. See how many years it's taken me to manage to get a fix on the un-wisdom learnt in childhood! (Why am I sure it was my grandmother? Because my mother wouldn't know an English word like couch, and my father didn't do domestic things like gardening....)

2. L. perenne is that deliciously scruffy-looking plant whose leaf-blades lie all towsled and greasily shining on beaten paths and on play areas - when the housing association has run out of money, stops mowing the grass, gets taken over by another housing association, and dreading the accusation of incompetence hastily delivers possession orders to every tenant who is behind with the rent. E. repens looks nothing like this, with its generally bluish tint and white hairs on the leaves.

3. The main at-a-glance diagnostic difference is the disposition of the spikelets. In L. perenne the narrowest part of the spikelet (in fact, the lower glume) abuts the axis of the stem. In E. repens the spikelets are as it were twisted 90 degrees - it's the broadest part of the spikelet that abuts the axis. This is in fact what the guidebooks show in the pictures, but you can't understand it until you see it for real. Oh, enlightenment!

That was the first thing I learnt. The second is this. If you are made to stand still for forty hours the blood drains to your feet and eventually pressure builds up and it leaks, and then spurts, out of the toenails. I learnt this from a memoir of the gulags by Kasimierz Zarod.

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