• Oh So Grateful for Glorious Grasses

    by Dana Goforth

    A leaf of grass is not less than the journeywork of the stars. — Walt Whitman

    cornucopiaThe cornucopia (from Latin cornu copiae, or horn of plenty), has long been associated with Thanksgiving. It’s symbolic representation of abundance can be traced to classical Greek mythology: the horn of a goat fed the infant Zeus, and the profusion of milk it produced gave continuous nourishment. Roman deities also claimed a bit of the “horn action,” claiming that the cornucopia granted everlasting power and prosperity. While these are interesting stories, it begs the question of how the horn of plenty or cornucopia landed on the pilgrim’s table?

    Recently, I read a story that made much more sense. A small Native American tribe in the Northeast was well known for their woven baskets. While most indigenous people made round baskets for storage, the women of this tribe were known for an unusual shaped design: one that begins at a point in the bottom and spirals up to a large, round opening. It was most likely made from reeds or grasses that were available in late summer or early fall. When the women made these baskets, they sang while weaving until the basket was completed. As they sang, they envisioned themselves at the point of the basket, grounded on Mother Earth, and, as the basket-making proceeded, so did the spiraling of their energies and their songs up to the stars. In essence, these women were singing spiritual abundance into being.

    Personally, I’m voting for the spirited, cone-shaped basket cornucopia at an early Thanksgiving gathering rather than the ancient goat horn metaphor.

    Traditionally, baskets are made with local plants and bark that are easily bent and shaped. Willow stems, grape vines, and even kelp are used in modern works. Native grasses are universally the preferred material by modern and ancient weavers. The grass can be tightly woven, even to the point of holding liquids. Looser weaving may hold fruits, nuts (especially good for acorns), vegetables, or other household goods.

    Grass Botany

    All grasses are in the Monocot (monocotyledon), family, as are palms, bamboos, garlic, and many flowering plants. OlivaInGrass_0911Monocot seedlings have a single seed-leaf, as compared to two that emerge. This group also includes plants grown from bulbs, rhizomes, and corms, such as onions. Many have a hollow stem surrounded in long, graceful sheaths of leaves.

    The grass family is vast and diverse with a presence in every type of environment, including water. Cattail, (Typha genus), may be the most recognizable aquatic one and is found around the world. Grasses are used to build homes and boats, and to make paper, fibers, medicinal ingredients, and, of course, baskets. Reeds are dried and used to make musical instruments, most notably the Peruvian flute. As food staples, corn, wheat, rice, and sugar cane are the mainstay of many diets, for both humans and animals. Aside from lawn grass, most grasses are relatively easy to grow and generally pest free. An added bonus — deer generally don’t eat ornamental grasses.

    Ornamental grasses are quite very diverse. Their form, texture, color, and motion can quietly add interest to any garden. From a gardener’s perspective, grasses are divided into two categories:, warm season and cool season grasses.

    Cool season grasses, such as Blue Fescue (Festuca glauca), Blue Oat Grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens), and Tufted Hair Grass (Deschampsia cespitosa), pop-up early in spring and may be at their most vibrant color well into the summer. It’s good to note that these types of grasses need to be frequently divided. If left unmaintained, they will die out in the center and leave a large, empty space.

    Warm season grasses handle heat and drought particularly well. They generally green up in late spring and early summer. Common ones are Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum), Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis). Hardy Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana), is also a late bloomer but is non-native and has become invasive in California. It is considered a pesky plant and extensive efforts have been made to eradicate the Pampas from the landscape. A personal warm season favorite is Buffalo Grass (Hierochloe odorata). It is a sacred plant to several Native American tribes… and it can be infused in vodka for an unusually tasty liqueur! Guaranteed to liven up any Thanksgiving event. (I know this from personal experience. Just saying.)

    Like bamboo, grasses are also divided into the sub-categories of running and clumping. A good example of the “runners,” is the diabolic Bermuda Grass (Cynodon dactylon), also known as the bossy boots of grasses. While this grass may be popular on sports fields, it has no place in a proper garden. Other runners, such as the beautiful Black Mondo (Ophiopogon planiscapus), and Lilyturf (Liriope spicata), are slow to grow and make an excellent and attractive groundcover. As the name says, running grasses are somewhat aggressive and take more work to control.

    Conversely, clumping ornamental grasses stay in tidy mounds and behave themselves. They tend to be self-seeding and are easier to control than their more aggressive brethren. Clumping grasses are also more common at local nurseries and include the Fescue Miscanthus and Pennisetum genera.

    Looking for More Bang for the Buck?

    In my opinion, one of the greatest benefits of having grasses in the garden is the visual color, texture, and movement they provide. Horticultural eye candy so to speak. The gracefully arching Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides), has a finely textured foliage and the seedheads provide color well into the winter. For unusual color, Purple Tufted Fescue (Festuca amethystine), and Japanese Blood Grass (Imperata cylindrical), are a nice addition. Blue Wheatgrass (Elymus magellanicus), is a stunning, light sage color and can highlight an otherwise dull area. It also pares well with many other plants. Great White Fleece Flower (Persicaria polymorphia), can be a specimen plant that draws much attention in a large garden with its creamy, delicate profuse flowers. Finally, the whimsical Lesser Corkscrew Rush (Juncus effuses), is fun to grow and does well in containers. An added bonus is that kids love the curlicue growth of the stem.

    For me, grasses are one of my favorite groups of plants. They offer so much variation, and their uses are far greater than most other plants. I particularly love the cornucopia metaphor and how a simple, functional piece of art has survived hundreds of years of tradition.


    Dana Goforth lives in Pacific Grove with 4 long haired cats and an awesome vacuum cleaner. She is a writer, artist, and gardener. Her latest book, Hollow Reed Reiki I, was published last year and is available at Artisana Gallery. You can find out more about Dana at www.danagoforth.com.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on November 27, 2013

    Topics: Diggin' It


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