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Grasses and Meadows and Books to Read

Fall is a time of year when I get excited about grasses. I love looking at expanses of meadows as I drive around the Peninsula — see the textures and tones of the meadow grasses swaying in the breeze. My favorite meadows are the ones that are most subtle. Grasses tend to be short, perhaps one dominant flower popping over just a few species of grass to add a sparkle of brilliance in meadows with veins or swaths of colors and textures created by the conditions on the ground —a swale with wetter soils, or clay soil, or ledge and stoney soils that drain very quickly ­— will cause differences in what grasses might grow. Nature does it best when it comes to design. All we need to do as gardeners is tweak it a bit to bring a bit of our own personality and pleasure into our yards.

Little Bluestem

And when it comes to meadows, Nature really does a great job. Even the shoulders and ditches along the roads can be wonderfully pleasing. This is a good time of year to see little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) in bloom. ​​It’s a relatively short grass that withstands the dry conditions of the roadside. It grows with clouds of airy florets atop rosy-colored stems. (Last week, we seeded little bluestem on the top of the staff entrance to the Library, and intend to plant is in the gravel soils of the teaching garden as well.)

Another favorite roadside grass is actually a rush, growing in dense colonies and appearing most frequently along the roads of Sedgwick and Brooklin. Baltic rush (Juncus balticus ssp littoralis) is a salt meadow rush with deep green, almost black straight wiry stems and is most striking in the early summer. According to Flora Novae Angliae, it is “becoming increasingly frequent along roadsides and freeways as a result of salting for ice and snow melting.” At the Native Garden, we have planted it in a swale under the winterberry (Ilex verticillata) with blue flag (Iris versicolor). ​​The dark green/black stems contrast nicely with the pale green leaves and violet-blue of the iris when in bloom. Look closely at its flowers in summer for a remarkable display.

This year I decided to go beyond the drive-by relationship and dig a little deeper into the glory of the meadows by enhancing my visual experience with a better sense of “knowing” these grasses, rushes and sedges. I decided it was time to get better at identifying different species. It’s easiest to identify grasses when they are in flower, and most grasses are in bloom this time of year.

I am not a scientist nor botanist, and I can get overwhelmed reading descriptions of ligule, glume and rachilla, which has caused me to give up in the past. So, I spent time in libraries and on the internet to come up with the best selection of book(s) for me to add to my resources. I like having an identification book in my car, ready to grab when I’m out and about. A book that doesn’t weigh much and is easy to use. I also like to have a book that can offer more exploration at home.

I will share what I found in case you too want to dig a little deeper.

The book for the car.

Grasses: An Identification Guide by Lauren Brown.

This book is out of print, but in the stacks of the Blue Hill Library. You can also find a used copy if you do a search on line. I was able to find a hardback in good condition. I was concerned about the extra weight of the hardback, but it weighs in at 15.5 oz on my digital kitchen scale. It also fits nicely in the inside pocket of my car door. The book has nice illustrations of most of the grasses, rushes and sedges in the Northeast. The Key for Identification is also simple with drawings illustrating the characteristics. A few flips to the back pages of the glossary helps. I think it’s a great book especially for a beginner.

The book for my bookshelf.

Grasses and Rushes of Maine by Glen H. Mittelhauser.

This book is based on very good photographs of all parts of grasses and rushes. (He also wrote a book on the Sedges of Maine in similar format). It’s a paperback, but weighs a lot! 3 lbs. 3 oz. to be exact. All those great high-resolution photographs require a clay based paper to look so good, and this is why it weighs so much.

What I like about his book is the Key for Identification is paired with photos and I can see a photo of a grass that characterizes that key description. All of the ligule, glume and rachilla are illustrated with a high-resolution magnification of that part. When it comes to the grass and rush descriptions, he writes a nice paragraph at the beginning of each genus that describes it. I get the sense that he has intimately experienced each grass. For each species, there is a list of key identifiers, which helps me learn how to use the Key. The book is a thorough list of all the grasses and rushes in Maine, which is very nice. The book came out this year, and I ordered my copy from the Blue Hill Bookstore. Samantha said she would order a few more in case you want to pick one up.

The book if you want to dig even deeper.

Grasses of the Northeast by Dennis W. Magee

A manual of just grasses, not rushes or sedges. This book put me off at first when it stated in the introduction that essential equipment to use the book includes a 10x magnification hand lens (ok, I have that one) but a 20x power dissecting microscope caused me to close the pages for a few days. I re-opened past the introduction and saw the very good illustrations, and each description included a map of New England with counties marked for where this grass is located, which appeals to me. It’s a book I would get when I’m past my novice stage as a cross reference. The hardback edition only weighs 1lb. 5oz. making it a book I could imagine carrying around with me.

So, back to the ligule, glume and rachilla. I found this very handy page on the internet and printed it out to fold into my book as a reference.

I encourage you all to consider the ordinary grass that puts out such an extraordinary display.

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