(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 9, 2008.)
More than 9,000 known species of grasses grow throughout the world, including those grown for grains, pasture, and lawns. Many grasses are ornamental (Pampas Grass), some are specialized (lemongrass), and many grasses are weeds. Think crabgrass.
The name "grass" evolved from 15th century Old English - "graes" is derived from the same root as "grow." Archaeological evidence shows that grasses and grass-like plants have existed for millions of years. Cretaceous dinosaurs dined on species of grasses that are ancestors of rice and bamboo. Because grass grows from a protected part at the base of the stem, the plant is able to repair itself and reproduce rapidly, making it almost indestructible - a true prehistoric species.
Grass is a major food source for humans, as well as livestock and wildlife; corn, rice, and oats are grasses, and some forms are used to produce sugar, liquor, and bread. Bamboo is used for construction, fencing, and furniture. Grass and grass-like plants have been used for paper-making since at least 2400 BC.
Look at a plug of grass in your lawn - you'll see that the stems and leaves grow up from a thick knot called a crown. The roots are fibrous and extend out around the base, securing it to the soil. All grasses produce flowers and seeds. Some species of grass reproduce by sending out additional sideways stems. If these stems creep across the surface of the ground, they are called stolons. Other species reproduce by sideways stems called rhizomes growing below ground. Each stolon or rhizome nurtures a new plant.
Thinking beyond our own yards, consider that grass is the base on which most major sports take place. Golf, football, rugby, baseball, cricket, and tennis all depend on a certain quality of turf. Three types of grass conditions are used on golf courses: the fairway, which is kept very short and even; the rough, which is longer and more difficult to play through; and the putting green - short, tight turf that helps the ball move smoothly toward the cup. A few regular tennis tournaments are played on grass, the most notable being Wimbledon. Grass for tennis must be grown on hard-packed soil, mowed frequently, and given a rest between uses. Outdoor football turf must be able to withstand 22 players pounding from end-zone to end-zone for 2 to 3 hours.
Ornamental grasses are among the most popular species with homeowners and landscapers. These sturdy low-maintenance plants can provide privacy and beauty while offering protection and food to birds and small animals. The large varieties grow fast, quickly screening a patio, deck, or small yard. Excellent specimens include Japanese Silver Grass (Miscanthus sinensis) and Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana). Smaller varieties such as Red Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum) and Blue Fescue (Festuca ovinia var. glauca) complement most broadleaf plants and shrubs. Fountain grass, especially, looks wonderful in a large patio pot with other plants requiring low-moisture. Festuca varieties are popular choices for roof gardens and "green roofs."
Determining your lawn goals will help you decide what type of grass to plant or reseed. Maintaining a "showcase" lawn will require a lot of work and the right conditions for your area - water, temperature, sunlight, soil, fertilizer, and drainage. Consider also how your lawn will be used: high or low traffic? The first step in choosing a grass type is to talk to your local extension agent, or a nursery or garden center.
Cool season grasses hold up during cold winters, but can't take extremely hot weather. Kentucky Bluegrass is a cool-season type.
Warm season grasses thrive in heat and lots of sun. Bermuda grass is a warm-season type.
Mixed grasses combine both cool and warm season varieties, and will usually grow in most conditions.
Blended grasses combine different varieties of the same type, and are not as adaptable as mixtures.
Next time you're sitting in the shade with an iced-tea, look out over your green domain and appreciate the importance of all those small blades.
1. "[Grass] covers one-fourth of Earth's land." Planet Earth: The Great Plains, Discovery, 2007
2. Piperno & Sues, 2005, quoted on Wikipedia; viewed 12/8/07