Thursday, March 15, 2007

Identifying grasses (reissued)

If you're interested in learning to name grasses.....

B. but Mikey I came here for some literary chat or maybe one of your fantastic short stories I’m not interested in stupid grasses, the idea bores the hell out of me...

Sure you are. I mean let me appeal to your vanity; a lot of people can recognize a few pretty flowers but grasses are a bit more tricky. You know the Nine, maybe, but there's a whole world of people out there who also know the works of Anton Bruckner -well, that's just a beginning, Harald Sæverud, Per Henrik Nordgren..! Wouldn’t you like to be one of those people with their miraculous 360 degree vision? And then you must consider that grasses do really have one big advantage – they hang around everywhere. You don’t have to travel far to do this.

Perhaps since what you really want is only to be attended to as a famous poet you think you can get by without too much nature, but let me put it to you. Grasses are, along with trees, unquestionably the most important group of vegetable species on earth; these two groups are the key determinants in making life outside the seas what it is. Most of the food you put in your mouth every day has got grass in its food-chain. If you are a nomadic Saami or rainforest-dweller, OK; but this is why our takeover of the world is principally about ripping out trees and replacing them with grassland, as currently in Brazil. Oh, but you’re an urban poet? Well, without agriculture there would never have been any towns; and agriculture is principally the management of grass. Oh, but your poetry is concerned with the possibilities of language? But don’t you see that human language is founded on mammalian experience, that a verb (like “stand” or “stretch”) is an expression of the body and its muscles, and where is all the protein for that mammalian body and its muscles going to come from if not from crops and pasture? And don’t you see that foraying into the vegetable world provides drastic and immediate challenges to what is precisely your (and my) interest: the limits and possibilities of language, which is made by us animals out of our animal consciousness? (Try using our language to say what grass does...) Oh, but you think of your interests as human, social and political? Then let me suggest to you that grasses are fundamentally connected with property, ownership, production, labour, leisure, sports, burial death and decay, alcohol, borders, clandestine courtship, clothes, carpets, the senses, Walt Whitman and open fields of every variety.

- This is all lies, obviously. It’s basically a variant on the etymologist’s fallacy, which is when someone tells you you should know about the origins of where you are before you can take the next step forward. (Etymology: when someone tells you that a common word derives from etc.. with the implication that this is meant to enlighten you, up until now your life was a fog but now, oh great master....) Taken seriously this would turn all the world into etymologists while it starved. Life intrinsically involves not knowing what or why or whence; we function as a thin film of livingness before giving over for someone else. Fortunately there are better reasons for looking at grass.

My own, if it comes to it, link up with my interest in council estates, travellers, under-classes, marginal land. Besides, I once witnessed the synchronized pollen-cloud lifting off a meadow; an unforgettable sight. The availability of grass, and the fantastic success of its sacrificial lifestyle (please eat me) are things I ponder in the night watches. Finally, I recognize most of the other flowers I see in my normal pathways, so shouldn’t I definitely recognize the grasses too? – Identification and names is not the point, we are not giving ouselves marks here. Recognition, connaissance, that is the point: I say to the grass whose name I don’t know, I want to live in a world that has you in it.

When you don’t have a name for a plant you basically look straight through it. You do not have an awareness. You can draw a parallel with human beings, with how heightened and tensed you suddenly become when you realize that you know the person who is standing in front of you in the queue at the Post Office. The analogy is not exact because I am comparing human individuals with plant species, but the species is a first focus. Hazlitt (in an important excursus, inspired by Wordsworth, in the Lecture on Thomson and Cowper), tells us that we connect “the idea of the individual with man, and only the idea of the class with natural objects.... We are always at home with Nature... A rose is always sweet, a lily is always beautiful...” Hazlitt is probably right to connect the instinctive substitution of generic classes for individuals with the soothing returns of nature (the first celandine - how it takes me back, etc), but he speaks from a more limited perspective than he realizes; he did not work with creatures like a shepherd or a groundsman did. However, most of us now share Hazlitt’s disengaged mind-set as a matter of course and can only be astonished by the state of those Bushmen who laughed at Laurens van der Post for confusing two watering-holes in the Kalahari because they were surrounded by the same kind of shrub. The nomads thought this was a funny mistake to make, because they recognized the shrubs as individuals. To them the shrubs had faces, and the explorer was making a surreal joke that connected two groups of individuals that they saw to be totally distinct.)

But also, to see the grasses by a roadside for the first time (I mean to look at them the way you do when you first try to tell a brome from a fescue) is to discover a new and overwhelming range of forms right there in your everyday life; and that’s a deep pleasure.

Plus, it stops you for a moment thinking about your stupid self and your stupid fantasies of being attended to as a famous poet. (I hope it is obvious that this is a conversation I’m having with myself, but also obvious that I think my own benign but chronic fantasy-sterility is symptomatic of how most of us – except the very desperate – spend much more time pretending to be someone than being someone.)

Plus, they don’t tell you about this in school.

Let’s get out there!

Well first, this is the best time of year to do it, in fact really the only good time. (nb was June when I wrote this, but I now think don't hang around...) In June you can see all the common species in flower or just coming into flower and by visting a few different locations e.g. meadow, hillside, roadside, garden you have a decent chance of starting to get to grips with the subject. If you wait until October and then a grass happens to take your interest you have no chance because there's nothing else around to compare it with so you'll just give up.

Here are my tips for grass-beginners, assuming that you already have some knowledge and enthusiasm for larger and more colourful wild flowers.

- Grasses being wind-pollenated and leading an essentially rather simple lifestyle are highly plastic, adaptable and prone to hybridity. Don't bother with a single individual if that's all you can find, make sure you get a view of a population and then focus on an average-looking and well-developed specimen.

- Grasses like other plants change in appearance over time. Grasses with stalked spikelets emerge from the leaf-sheath with everything tightly pointing upward, then the panicle slowly falls open and the grass comes to look completely different. The field guides don't warn you about this as much as they should.

- Don't mistake buds for flowers! This should be obvious, but it fooled me. Even after the panicle has flopped open the individual spikelets may still be immature, the individual flowers still enclosed within the glumes, and the general appearance will not look anything like the pictures in your guide. This is definitely true of some common Festuca species. The obvious answer is to study the changes in grasses that you walk past every day.

- And on the same topic, some grasses are less noticeable during their fairly short time of flowering than during the relatively much longer time that they are fruiting and turning straw-like. Deschampsia cespitosa (Tufted Hair-grass) is a good example. The consequence is, that what the field guide illustrates for you may be unintendedly misleading.

- All the above three remarks are variations on the same theme, that grasses aren't very easy to illustrate. They're not very easy to photograph either, especially the ones with very open panicles (e.g. Agrostis), or those slender woodland grasses that are always in the shade.  

- The best time to spend with grasses is a hot day in June. But being in a meadow in a hot day in June is something we’re not good at for long. We get prickly and bothered. It’s a timely reminder that though we think we are free agents and the world is our oyster, in fact we generally walk along very narrow paths that are conducive to our metabolisms. Hence the common observation: the moment you start to look at nature as a botanist, you step off the map. That’s both exciting and difficult. “Wilderness” defined as places untouched by man is virtually extinct, at least in the UK. “Wilderness” defined as places people don’t hang around is a few yards away; when it’s raining, this wilderness comes right up to our doors.

- You can identify quite a lot of wild flowers without bothering about a hand-lens, but with grasses it is definitely something you'll need to resort to pretty often.


It's good to have a decent x20 lens (which costs about £16) but it's not as useful as you might think - the high magnification means you are only looking at a very tiny part of the plant, and often that doesn't give you enough context. So get a x10 and preferably a x15 as well. You'll find that you use the x10 much more than the others. But don't bother with one of those tempting triangular things that contains all three lenses. It's too heavy to hang round your neck and also the bulk makes it awkward to bring near enough to what you want to look at.


Traditional microscopes are only useful if you are a serious specialist; much more serious than most people who read or write blogs. I haven't ever owned one of these new low-magnification portable microscopes that cost £12.99 but they look like a botanist's dream (the main thing about them is you just place them on what you want to look at, and the light source comes from above so you don't have to make any slides). But though this should be great for stuff that you bring home, it would be no good out of doors except for objects that stay completely still, such as a tree-trunk or a map-lichen. Grasses NEVER stand still. And anyway, you'll still need the hand-lenses; for most purposes the microscope zooms in far too close.

Other things:

Back at base you ought to have dissecting needles (pins mounted on long handles) - but I'm damned if I know where to buy them ( sell super-fine forceps and a £20 dissection kit, which might be worth looking at) . If you break off two inches of a pencil and then force the blunt end of the needle between the wood and the lead, this works OK. It needs to be a stiff needle. A thin one sounds like it ought to be more precise but the problem is it’s too springy and tends to go per-dang shooting your spikelets across the desk. You need some sort of viewing board - white and smooth - that will take a point - paper is not bad but it absorbs moisture and goes wavy. Whatever kind of needles you use, dissecting a fresh spikelet is a wretched business (unless it's something really big, like a brome or an oat).

It would be good to have some sort of calibrator for measuring accurately to 0.1 mm. OK, I haven't got one myself, but I do feel the lack of it.


You need to take grasses home to spend time looking at them. A botanical tin is a waste of time as hardly any plants are tin-shaped. It's better to improvise.

Grasses are designed for snagging, so if you try to be too neat about it they'll frustrate you. They also tend to be much taller than you anticipate, and a supermarket carrier-bag is probably as good a solution as any, because it allows all that extra tallness to stick out of the top. When you get home, put the grasses straight into a vase or tumbler of water. They will surprise you by how strikingly beautiful they look. They will almost certainly go into emergency-flowering mode, which is a handy way of counting the number of flowers per spikelet (stamens are a lot easier to count than lemmas).


This is based on the UK and there might be some good newer books, though I would expect to have noticed them and I haven't.

Collins Guide to the Grasses, Sedges, Rushes and Ferns of Britain and Northern Europe (Fitter, Fitter and Farrer 1984)

Still the most practical book to take out with you; lightweight, rugged. Hereafter referred to as "FFF".

A large number of the sedges and rushes aren't found in Britain, which can waste a lot of time if you are just flicking through the pictures; this is less of a problem with the grasses. Personally I've annotated the illustration pages of my own copy with little codes so I can see at a glance if the pictured plant is found in the UK (and also, basic habitat like C for "Coastal" and W for "Woods"). Do likewise!

I'm awarding extra marks because the book has maps for each species,  which provide a mass of additional information (and it's info you won't find e.g. in Stace).

Mark subtracted because like all older books it has separate indices for Latin and English names. Funny how persistent these paradigms can be. As soon as one person had the wit or ignorance to ask "Why separate them?", then overnight we could all see the superior practicality of merging them into one.

C.E. Hubbard's classic Grasses (1954 and many revisions)

 You need this too. Apart from the book being great reading, it has systematic descriptions. A systematic description is one that methodically describes every part of the plant.

Whether you are able to use keys or not (personally I have a fundamentally negative attittude towards keys, so nothing ever keys out correctly), you ultimately need systematic descriptions to double- and treble-check that you haven't made a mistake or been misled by untypical plant material.

So when I got home with my sample of unknown grass yesterday, I felt fairly sure from FFF that it was Tor-grass (Brachypodium pinnatum), but FFF didn't mention what seemed to me a very distinctive blunt ligule. Because their descriptions are confined to the features they have singled out for diagnostic purposes.

But never mind, I could confidently turn to Hubbard in the knowledge that he'd describe the ligule and I'd even be able look at a picture of it.

 [NB, Grasses of the British Isles, by Tom Cope and Alan Gray (2009) is designed to replace Hubbard, but I haven't seen it yet.]

Francis Rose, Colour Identification Guide to the Grasses, Sedges, Rushes and Ferns of the British Isles and north-western Europe (Viking, 1989).

 This is a sort of sequel to The Wild Flower Key (Warne, 1981 - recently reissued in a revised edition), which is head and shoulders the best UK field guide to other higher plants. This one is a little too bulky to be a convenient field guide, but the text is more detailed than Fitter et al, the illustrations set a whole new standard and it's altogether clearly the best book for people who prefer to identify things from pictures.

Clive Stace, New Flora of the British Isles (Cambridge University Press, 1st edn 1991, 2nd edn 1997, 3rd edn 2010)

 is the most comprehensive guide to all higher plants in Britain, and when you've learnt how to cope with it you'll see it to be indispensable. There's about 100 terrifying pages on the Poaceae (formerly known as Gramineae). But, you need this. For example, it's quite impossible, from Fitter et al, to distinguish golden oat-grass from downy meadow-grass, because they omit to mention that Trisetum spikelets are half the size of Helictotrichon - which by the way they call Avenula. (These continuing name changes are the other reason you must have Stace.)

Behind Stace lies an even grander monument: Peter Sell and Gina Murrell, Flora of Great Britain and Ireland, planned in five volumes of which three have appeared so far (Vols 3-5 - the grasses are in Vol 5). You will not be buying this unless you are a library or a serious botanist - each volume costs about £150 (though currently - late 2012 - has extremely tempting discounts). This is basically the same species list as Stace, but with two massive pluses: full plant descriptions, and full coverage of all the critical species of Hieracium, Taraxacum etc. This is definitely the kind of book for which you will NOT find reviews on Amazon. But if you take advantage of "Look Inside" to browse, you may begin to toy uneasily, as I do, with the idea that it's really "indispensable".

Roger Phillips, Grasses, Ferns, Mosses & Lichens of Great Britain and Ireland (Pan Books, 1980). 

This is one volume in Phillips' popular large-format photographic series, which deservedly invaded coffee-tables in the 1980s. Photographs are what total beginners find easiest to work with, and though more definitive (and smaller) guides are immediately discovered to be necessary, the section on grasses retains genuine value as a catalogue of photos. I still turn to it sometimes when I can't understand what the other books are trying to tell me. (The best thing about the book, however, is the big, clear, illustrations of common mosses and liverworts.)

W.J. Stokoe et al., The Observer's Book of British Grasses, Sedges and Rushes (Warne, various dates and editions). 

I mention this (an attractive little volume that often shows up in charity shops) as it can represent the shortcomings of all the older guides. It isn't really their own fault, but they're of no practical use. The problem is that the names, both English and Latin, indeed the whole arrangement of the genera in the grass family, have changed so much that the older books are now full of puzzles. Fern grass, for example, appears here as "Hard meadow grass" with the unexpected Latin name Festuca rigida (it is now Catapodium rigidum, though sometimes still called Desmazeria rigida). Add to this that the book isn't comprehensive, so that it omits even so common a species as Red Fescue. Only a botanical historian (if there are such people) could make much sense of a passage like this, of Lolium: "There are thirteen other British species of which the Cornfield Rye Grass (L. arvense) is found only in England. It is an annual and grows to a height of two feet, flowering in August." The reference is I believe to an unawned variety of darnel (L. temulentum), which itself merited full treatment when the Observer's Guide was written but is now such a rare casual as to be hardly more than a footnote; it's not only the names that have changed.


Web sources.

Finally a recommended site! Informed Farmers is an Australian site for farmers. Its accounts of pasture species (such as Cocksfoot, Tall Fescue) are absolutely excellent, full of information and with good pictures of the plants at different times of the year.

Grass identification quiz (fun and informative):

More grass identification quizzes, and other articles:

Where to start:

Some of the common species are unmistakable, e.g. wall barley (Hordeum murinum), false oat-grass (Arrhenatherum elatius) and Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus). This should give you confidence. Then learn to distinguish common couch from perennial rye-grass; look at them side by side until they stop looking the same. Then go after the big three families: Festuca, Bromus and Poa. Each of them has one or two really common species that will give you a foothold. And now you’ve broken the back of it.

See how I speak like an expert! In fact, this is far from the case, I am only half a step ahead of you. And being a literary type, I’m really not very good at identifying grasses or anything else. Identification is largely a matter of counting, which is something we are very reluctant to do, and if we do agree to count something we perversely insist that the ANSWER must be absolutely definitive, which is not how nature tends to work. Faced with the plasticity of grasses and an assertion that a grass is 2-3-flowered, hairy or sometimes not, we easily throw up our hands and think there is no point in counting the flowers or checking for hairs at all. We continue to live mentally in the arithmetic classes of primary school, the only time we were ever really comfortable with numbers.

I flew into work along a road that was apple-silver with blowy meadow-grasses. I was thinking about what I'd written. Numbering, yes, but if you could truly succeed in taking control of nature, you'd lose it that way, too. Even armed with the words "pruinose" and "distal" you can't say much. It's only partly what you do, it's just as much what nature does to you. In short, we are talking about a relationship, and therefore a dynamic.

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At 7:30 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

Michael, I love your article on grasses. I can't afford those books but I would dearly love to identify a grass I saw today in a banal location. It's written up, amongst other stuff, here.

At 10:21 pm, Blogger Chiftah said...

It is nice to know I am not the only one who has noticed the variety of grasses out there and wants to find out about them. Advice on books much appreciated.

At 10:32 pm, Blogger Chiftah said...

It is good to know I am not the only one noticing the variety of grasses out there and wanting to know how to identify them. The comments about the available book are much appreciated.

At 3:53 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Grasses aren't vegetables!

At 10:00 am, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

It was Daisy the cow who misled me. Grasses are sociable animals with their own silvery language, and they're fond of team sports.


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