All In the Family: Poaceae

by Andrew Keys on March 9, 2010

The grass family is called Poaceae. It also goes by Gramineae, because it’s just that cool. It’s the fourth largest plant family, behind: Orchidaceae, the orchids; Asteraceae, the asters; and Fabaceae, the pea family, which we discussed in my last installment of this series. There are over 10,000 species of grasses. Stop to consider that in terms of blades of grass, people. Sheesh.

I’ll venture when most of my readership thinks of grasses, you think of lawn and/or all the lovely ornamental grasses we grow in our flowerbeds. Say, for example, Panicum ‘Dallas Blues,’ pictured below. It’s one of my faves.

But who else is in the grass family tree? A whole boatload of good things to eat, it turns out. I’d be real surprised if your lunch doesn’t include some component of grass: corn, rice, bamboo, wheat, barley, oats, and sugarcane, all of these are grasses. How mindblowing is that? Your Miscanthus is just a genetic hop and a skip from rice, a crop so important a shortage spells famine on a global scale. And corn! For better or worse, corn is probably on your plate and in your gas tank, though I question the sustainability of the latter.

What I AM on board with is corn as an ornamental. Why don’t more of us grow it? I love it in an urban front garden. You should also know I spent 10 sidetracked minutes writing this entry because I discovered hardy sugarcane, Saccharum arundinaceum, which I now must have. (A possible replacement for Pennisetum ‘Foxtrot,’ which I’ll be discussing later on?)

My other favorite tidbit about grasses: did you know grasses and trees are locked in an struggle for world domination that’s lasted eons? No kidding. When the globe warms, trees recede and grassland takes the place of much forest. When it cools, trees move in again and retake grassland. About five million years ago, a global warming trend chased trees back so far that grasslands overtook much of central North America — a place we know today as the Great Plains. This has been going on for longer than you can conceive of, at a pace imperceptible to we humans. It’s an epic battle that fascinates me.

So, have you marveled at a grass today?

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