“Grass don’t get no respect, ” to paraphrase the famous comedian. When we go out to commune with nature, we look at the tall trees, the forbs, the large areas of cultivated fields and pastures planted to non-native forage grasses, and a stream, pond, or lake if we can find one.
Grasses? We just walk on them — they are just a layer of green or brown covering the soil.
Yet, on close observation, grasses have a great deal of variety and can be quite interesting. As Barnard says, “The aesthetic appeal of grasses is unique. The varied textures and forms of the grasses adapt them to many uses.”
Native species are having a renaissance. Whereas we used to establish only cultured turf grasses and forbs around our houses, today, people are using these native grasses for landscaping purposes instead. Highway departments are making a point of planting native species on their rights-of-way.
Barnard’s “Field Guide” describes 67 species of wild grasses, both native and naturalized, found in Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
In her introduction, she reminds us that before the coming of the white man, the Great
Plaines area of North America was covered with wild grasses.
In the western prairies up to the foothills of the Rockies, the precipitation of 10” to 20” supported short grasses.
To the east, where the precipitation was 22” to 30” grew grasses of mixed height. Further east were the tall grasses.
In the Manhattan area, with its 34” of precipitation, grasses grew as tall as a man.
Barnard presents an identification key based on the morphologies of eight different inflorescences.
In each classification, she further keys them out, finally naming the particular species that you are looking at.
Most of the book, 170 pages, is information on each species, giving its Linnaean binomial, height, growth, habitat, period of flowering, description, distribution map, and comments. The excellent close-up color photos show details of the inflorescences, nodes, leaves, and other features of interest.
In the field, you may need a magnifying glass to see some of these fine details.
Barnard also gives us close up identification photos of the leaves of 57 species, arranged by width from about 1/8” to 1-1/2”, and a glossary of grass-related terms.
Some plants, most notably the sedges and rushes, look, at first glance, like grasses, but are not. She shows us what they look like and she tells us how they differ from the grasses.
This handy little book is a joy to look at because of its many excellent color photos of the inflorescences, nodes, blades, and other parts of the different grasses.
The author was careful to put the plant’s area of interest in front of a black background so that the reader could see exactly what he needed to see, and not be confused with other elements.
The next time you go out into the wild, take this book with you, and stop and look closely at the grasses.
You might go to Konza Prairie and follow the trail from the bridge over the King’s Creek up to the crest of the hill and see how the species change as the environment changes from sheltered and wet, to windswept and dry.
Other places you might visit are Carnahan Creek, various reservoirs and the fields around them, and Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Chase County.
Afterwards, you might be able to give the native grasses a little more respect.
Iralee Barnard is a retired botanist who worked at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Chase County.