Saturday, June 18, 2011


Some people say, “ You can’t see the forest for the trees”. I think, “ you can’t see the trees for the grass.” Or at least that’s how I felt a week ago when I had toured the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. I guess I’ve been living a little myopically since I “discovered” the grasses a few weeks ago. I’ve had a hard time keeping focused on the bigger picture, which at the Arnold is some very impressive old specimen trees. As I scrolled through my photos when I returned, I’m working on an article for the Washington Park Arboretum Bulletin, I was surprised how many photos included grasses.
Now it would be hard to exclude grasses from almost any arboretum photos. Grasses make the perfect under story for trees, a soft hardscape for strolling among them. As I wandered the Arnold looking for specific trees I found I was often walking through grasses, wading at times, after a deluge of thunderstorms passed through the area saturating the park, as I went deep into the collection where there was little foot traffic. The park is crisscrossed by black top roads, and sidewalks, gravel paths, muddy paths and mown paths. There is a constant stream of dog walkers, stroller joggers, kids and work vehicles on the move there. There were even amblers, and a few questers like me looking for a specific trees, or the perfect shot for photographing.
I took each of these ways through the park at one point or another, but mostly I stuck to the grassiest ways, which conjured words I’ve only read and never written like sward, glade, turf, and green. Certainly it was green. The lawns stretched across the 265 acre park varied greatly from the finely manicured lawns near the Hunnewell building which housed the visitor center and offices of the arboretum, to glades beneath the stands of tall oaks, and meadows in open areas between collections.
I was surprised how much I was captivated by the grassy areas; I came for the trees. But if it weren’t for the grasses I would have only seen a forest and probably not the trees.
Walk with me and you might see what I mean.

Many choices. many directions to choose from.

Expansive well groom lawns read like architecture.

Kentucky coffee tree off the main drag.

Gravel leads deeper into the collections.

Grass captures shadows.

Deeper still on a path less travelled.

Shadows pool on the meadow on a hot afternoon.

The path becomes obscured as it penetrates the conifer collection...

until I'm knee deep in the sward.

Friday, June 10, 2011


"The urge to travel is self-perpetuating and can never be satisfied. It seems to have been handed down genetically, a residual trace perhaps of vast prehistoric migrations undertaken by our distant ancestors."

James Atlee Nocturne

Monday, June 6, 2011


A few days ago I was out for a walk down the road. I was still tingling with the excitement of seeing all the desert wildflowers the day before. My mind was keen with finding more.
Well, there were buttercups, and clover, and herb robert. All the usual suspects of the weedy roadside buried in a matrix of grasses.
I had been looking right through the grasses for the pretty petalled forbs. Then I looked at the grasses. I began to pick a few grass inflorescences just to get closer. I was stunned at the diversity of grasses I found in the 10 foot swath along the road. I picked a whole handful of inflorescences as I went to examine when I got home.
I pulled the only book I have on wild grasses and began to read:
‘Few people — even those who are passionately interested in nature — take the trouble to learn the names of grasses,” wrote Lauren Brown in her book GRASSES: An Identification Guide, “Enthusiasts who will travel hundreds of miles to look at ‘wildflowers’ ignore the grasses in their own back yard (even though they are technically also wildflowers).”
That sure sounded like me. So I decided to bridge that gap in my botanical knowledge and start learning the grasses. So like a good poet cum botanist I begin looking. Just trying to see the grasses. And the more I see the more there are. The word ‘grasses’ begins to hiss through my teeth like all the blue racers I saw on my walk fleeing the warmth of the black top for green privacy. But it is like calling my friends “people” instead of using their names. I want to learn their names.
A few were familiar, even had familiar friendly names like timothy and brome, from the summers I spent in the hayfields of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Some like quack grass and crab grass, with their cranky little names are familiar from a life of weeding. But there were many lovely grasses I had never taken notice of before. And June, the grassiest month, when they all start extending their inflorescences and letting their wind born pollen fly, is the best time to be looking.
So I am asking you, too, dear readers, to look. Not at lawns necessarily, or the ornamental grasses in you garden, but at the grasses that are everywhere in vacant lots, cracks in pavements and along the side of the road, the green swath that we speed by each day. And if you can find a place to get out of your car and take a closer look please do.

I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.