Get your tickets now for the 19th Annual Sourland Mountain Festival, on July 13th, before they're gone!
For several years my sister-in-law, Penny, joined my wife, Kathleen, and me for our two-week vacation in Maine. All three of us were outside from dawn to dusk, hiking along the bold coast, through the spruce forest, or across meadows. Mostly, we followed Kathleen’s lead and looked for birds, but gradually Penny and I began to be equally interested in identifying the flowers along our paths. With the help of a couple of field guides and the leisure that a vacation allows we got pretty good at it, so one year I told Penny that we should focus on identifying grasses. “Are you out of your mind,” she responded with vigor. I protested a bit then conceded that grasses were too difficult for us amateurs and the idea was dropped. To be good at grass identification it helps to have a microscope in your backpack and that does not interest me. But I never stopped thinking I should know at least a few common grasses.

As a step toward that goal, I found a copy of GRASSES, SEEDGES, RUSHES: AN IDENTIFICATION GUIDE by Lauren Brown and Ted Elliman, in a corner of my bookcase and started reading it and taking it on hikes with me. The authors suggest you forget about identifying grasses by their flowers, which are small, inconspicuous, and only slightly different from each other, and look instead at the overall shape of the grass. Further, they make a good point that grasses are ubiquitous and therefore critically important; they cover one-third of Earth’s land mass and are found on every continent, including Antarctica. No one in central New Jersey can walk far without encountering grass in a lawn, a natural area, or the cracks in the sidewalk. Grasses are also critical to human survival. Wheat, corn, rice, oats, rye, barley, sorghum, and millet are all grasses. Sugar cane is a type of grass, so anything you eat that is sweetened with sugar is partly grass. Livestock is fed grass, so meat eaters are eating grass by proxy.

Grasslands are also important wildlife habitats. They are full of insects and spiders; meadowlarks, bobolinks, and several species of sparrows live in fields, while bluebirds, swallows, and several species of flycatchers find sustenance in fields while they live in surrounding trees or nests. Small mammals like mice, moles, rabbits, and groundhogs live there. All of this life attracts predators like hawks, falcons, and foxes. I once read a theory that from a hawk’s perspective, the ideal height for grass in a meadow is about three inches because it allows the hawk to see its prey but gives the prey a false sense of security. It is lucky for the prey that meadow grasses only stay at that height for a short period.

An often overlooked importance of grasslands is that they are efficient carbon sinks. Trees sequester more carbon, much of which is stored in trees’ leaves. Grasses store some of the carbon they capture in their leaves but most of it is in their roots. In fall, when the tree and grass leaves die, the carbon they have stored in leaves is released, but the carbon in grass roots is preserved or passed to the soil through the grass’s root tips and fungi. This transfer enriches the soil, allowing it to grow more plants. Further, it only takes grasses one to three years to be fully mature and at maximum ability to sequester carbon, while it will take decades for newly planted trees to reach that level.

Experts tell us to expect more extremes in weather from the warming of the globe. There will be more droughts, more heavy rainfalls causing floods, more frequent and fiercer windstorms, including more hurricanes, along with higher temperatures year around. In many ways, grasses are better able to withstand these extremes than trees. Grasses require less water for sustenance than trees—largely because they are so much smaller. Grasses have flexible stems that bend with heavy wind or lashing rain while trees can break or be uprooted.

In a previous essay, I said that the best reason for learning the names of plants is that it is the first step to understanding them and making them more familiar. If the plants in the natural world are familiar you will feel more at home there, increasing your sense of community. So I recommend that you join me in trying to recognize eight or ten—or a dozen—of the most common grasses. Doing so will not only enlarge your community but will open a new world of grace and beauty.

This blade of bottlebrush grass looks like the model for a chest pendant for an ancient medical man, or for a present-day fashionista.

Big bluestem grass displays the grace of a Brancusi sculpture.

This patch of foxtail grass was dancing in the wind like a ballet troop.

By Jim Amon.