19 October 2007

Slender Wild Oat

This morning I visited a friend at the Urban Life Center at 1031 Franklin Street. I arrived a little early so I poked around the back parking area and checked out the grasses growing next to the lot. I saw tall fescue and what I now think was slender wild oat or Avena barbata. At first I thought it was Purple Needlegrass (the California state grass), but spending a bit of time with on-line and book sources, I now think it is slender wild oat. I went running in the Presidio this afternoon and suprisingly noticed a patch of slender wild oat growing next to Presidio Avenue.

Slender wild oat (shown above along a highway) is far different than the ordinary wild oat (Avena fatua), which seems to be more common and far more scraggly than Avena fatua. The seedhead of slender wild oat is very attenuated and from it projects a long (2-inch) awn that looks like an antenna from a large insect. Slender wild oat was brought to the region from either Russian or Spanish settlers. It was an important presence in the landscape before the Civil War and was often noted by early visitors to the state.

As is often the case, the John Rawlings website, Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, has a wonderful entry on Avena barbata.

St. Mark's Lutheran Church at 1111 O'Farrell Street built the Urban Life Center in 1964. The Center was built at the same time as the Martin Luther Tower--a 12-story senior housing project. The Urban Life Center was originally built to be a community center for the neighborhood and as a senior center for tower residents. It now has a wider use, both as offices for the church and as rental office space. The Urban Life Center is a classic mid-1960s building, comprised mostly of steel and concrete. This building would look at home at any college campus built around the time of the Vietnam War--including buidings at Stanford (especially the Stanford bookstore) as well as much of UC Irvine.

16 October 2007

No more day-old bread at Folsom and 16th

There's a chain link fence around the Rainbo Bakery Store at 16th Street and Folsom in the Mission. The store is closed and it is likely that bulldozers will come and demolish the one-story building. I expect that soon this space will be occupied by live-work lofts or another new housing development.

The Rainbo Bakery Store sold day-old bread as well as milk, sodas, and a few other grocery items. I used to stop here on the way home from work if I needed something for dinner. The building was oriented at a 45 degree angle to 16th and Folsom streets and looked out onto the intersection.

This bakery store always felt like a little patch of Queens, NY. There was something about the 1960s architecture of the building, the litter in the parking lot, the dirty exterior walls and floors of the shop that just reminded me of some of the more rundown sections of Queens. Homeless guys often sat against the building or stood in the vast parking lot.

Inside, the shop was always lively. No one seemed in a particular rush and often long conversations between a patron and the clerk had to finish before I could pay for my hot dog buns or soda. It seemed to truly provide a service to those folks in the neighborhood, especially those who were on public assistance.

In the little square patches of dirt in the sidewalk outside the shop I managed to find many examples of Red Brome or Bromus rubens. This is one of the most common plants found on the street in San Francisco and I haven't been able to identify it until now.

Red Brome would be a good name for hard-boiled detective or a guy who puts out oil well fires.

Red Brome is a spiky plant with a seedhead that rises right above the main stem. Red Brome is not a native grass (it seems to have arrived in California during the early 19th century.) It is considered invasive and crowds out native species. It burns easily and is said to be a fire hazard. It's hard and spiky texture make it unpalatable for grazing animals. But it seems to have taken a real liking for the open patches of dirt in the South of Market neighborhoods.

(The photograph of Bromus rubens comes from the UC Davis Global Invasive Species web site.)

15 October 2007

The known world

As this project continues into its second month, I wonder about my quest to identify local grass species. What does one gain by being able to name each grass I see on my walks? Is this linked to some Enlightenment dream of naming all parts of the world and thus feeling I have more control over the landscape?

Am I really interested in appreciating nature or is this more like the effort in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to catalog and display the natural world in zoos and botanical gardens?

And how much of my interest in the common landscape of grasses is linked to the English 19th century fascination with the natural world? The Victorians believed that the study of nature was in some ways an act of worship--a way to study the bounty of God's gifts to the world. (Some of this can be seen in Thoreau's own writings as well.)

While I do believe that looking and admiring the natural world is a worthy goal, I also know that my esteem for nature is derived from the British and American conception of nature as both divine and a healing force.

In my defense, the point of this exercise is not just to memorize dozens of local grasses, but merely to look at the diversity of the ordinary landscape. I may never be able to identify half the grasses I see, but I have learned to look closer, to focus on what makes each species different--from the complex seed head to the way the small stems shoot off from the larger stem or culm of the plant.

Image from the Smithsonian (American Memory Project) website: Baboon sitting in a cage in the Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, 1927.

14 October 2007


Got a chance to visit a farm in the Capay Valley on Saturday. It was beautiful to drive through the golden hills and olive groves. There were many grasses at the farm--and people who could identify them. Of course, I remembered only a few of the names of the native grasses pointed out to me. I did managed to write down the name of Elymus glaucus or Blue Wildrye on a napkin

Blue Wildrye is a native and perennial bunchgrass that serves as a great shelter for birds and mammals. It can be eaten by animals as well. It grows throughout the western United States.

Native Americans used this grass in basket making. Also, it can be used as a cereal grain. One of the more hardy native grasses, it can survive fires and flooding and can easily grow to cover large areas. This grass can grow up to five feet tall, with flat leaves that can turn a shade of blue-green. It tends to grow in meadows, fields, and along roads.

From as far as I can tell, most traditional landscape architects don't value blue wildrye as an ornamental grass, but it is becoming more important in western gardens, especially in its native California. It seems to be used more often in erosion control projects or to replant sites like logging roads and clear-cut forests.

(photo from Flickr, from Dale Hameister's photostream)

12 October 2007

Karl Blossfeldt

A recent comment on this blog brought up the name of Karl Blossfeldt, the German photographer. Blossfeldt (1865-1932) dedicated his life to photographing plants (an example of his work is above--two photos of Dutch Rush (Equisetum hyemale). Blossfeldt was interested in capturing the symmetry of plants and using these sorts of photographs in his classes at the Berlin’s Charlottenburg School of Arts and Crafts to teach how one might design using nature as a model. He is best known for his book, Art Forms in Nature (1928).

Blossfeldt never bought his specimens at florists. He preferred to find them on country roads, along railway tracks, or other “proletarian places.” He also focused on common weed-like plants, which he considered far more interesting than more ornamental flowers like orchids. Blossfeldt took more than 6,000 photographs using a wooden camera he designed himself.

It is hard not to see some of his photographs as somehow emblematic of the emerging age of mass production and urbanization. These are not images of grass waving in the wind or next to rushing rivers. These are species captured magically alone and often 12 times their original size. At times they look like skyscrapers from a unknown Fritz Lang movie, others look more like wild, surrealist sculpture, part M.C. Escher, part Hieronymus Bosch. To be honest, it is difficult to look at some of his images—and to know that these horrifying explosions of plant life are actually living in parks and vacant lots.

Equisetum hyemale, which is not a true rush, is also used by clarinet players to improve reeds.

Taschen, the publisher, put out a very nice paperback on Blossfeldt in 2001. Much of the information above came from this source.

11 October 2007

White Man's Foot

There are a million grasses in this city and, yes, each species has its own story.

Though individual plants often just survive a season or two, the biological heritage of each species reaches back hundreds of years.

For example, some grasses were brought over by European settlers as forage for livestock (i.e., Reed Canary Grass or Phalaris arundinacea). Others were ornamental grasses brought over from Asia (Chinese Silver Grass, Miscanthus sinensi) then "escaped" from gardens and ended up growing along highways. (I do like the idea of runaway grass, making a fast break from a rich man's landscape and heading out to the highway).

The history of Plantain Major or broad-leaved plantain is a good example. OK, it's not a grass (but it appears in Lauren Brown’s Grasses: An Identification Guide). It is a common weed you can find easily in lots and roadsides in the United States, including the Bay Area.

Plantain major was brought to the states by Europeans who valued it for its medicinal qualities. It was said to cure everything, including epilepsy, hemorrhoids, and ulcers. References to Plantain major appear in Chaucer and Shakespeare.

Native Americans called the plant White Man's Foot or Englishman's Foot because it seemed to spring up wherever the Europeans settled in the New World.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow refers to White Man’s Foot in his 1855 poem “Hiawatha”:

Wheresoe'er they move, before them
Swarms the stinging fly, the Ahmo,
Swarms the bee, the honey-maker;
Wheresoe'er they tread, beneath them
Springs a flower unknown among us,
Springs the White-man's Foot in blossom.

(Photo from David Three Rats' photostream via Flickr)

10 October 2007

Ship of Grass

Yesterday I walked along Terry A. Francois Street. This narrow road runs through a small seam of undeveloped land between the new UCSF Mission Bay campus and the eastern shore of the city. The street is a remnant of old, industrial San Francisco, lined with modest wood buildings, vacant lots and forgotten boat ramps.

A wooden boat has been left in front of one of the buildings on the street. The boat is filled with dirt from which blooms several species of flowers and grasses. Ripgut Brome (Bromus diandrus) has taken root near the bow. Ripgut is distinguished by its nearly-two-inch-long attenuated seed pods (spikelets) and its long awn, the antenna-like projection that pushes out from the spikelet.

Bromus diandrus came to the United States from Europe and, according to Crampton, can be found often in California in vacant lots, on sidewalks, and in fields that have recently been excavated.

While livestock can easily feed off of younger plants, more mature versions of the plant can hurt the eyes, mouth, feet, and intestines of animals—thus the term ‘ripgut.’ Parts of the spikelet are covered with backwards-facing hairs and easily get caught in fur and feet of dogs and cats.

Of course this ability to hang on to animals is one of the ways that Ripgut helps spread its seed. Other seeds can spread via water or on the wind.

It’s hard to figure out why this boat is beached in front of this building. Was this an old, informal boat or fishing club? Who filled the boat with dirt?

With the redevelopment of this flank of the city, we will lose these sorts of mysterious landscapes. No matter how much we appreciate the tidy landscapes of new urban parks and campuses, new development takes away the old, weird San Francisco—the foundations of old factories, the abandoned uniform shops, the vacant lots that only homeless men know well.

Photo on left by author; right: © Br. Alfred Brousseau, Saint Mary's College.

09 October 2007

10 terms used for identifying grass species that sound like heavy metal band names

1. Involucre
2. Stolon
3. Primordium
3. Juncus
4. Spikelet
5. Monocotyledons
6. Digitate
7. Culm
8. Sheath
9. Scabrous
10. Puberulent

If you added umlauts to any of the above botanical terms, they would not seem out of place on a poster for Ozzfest. Alas, this is the sort of terminology that one encounters in the standard guidebooks on grass identification.

The photograph above is of the heavy metal band, Manowar. Formed in Auburn, New York, Manowar claims to have been the "loudest band in the world" and once was listed as such in the Guinness Book of Records. The Manowar fan base seems to largely located outside of the United States, particularly in Bulgaria, Argentina, and Brazil. I highly suggest a look at their website, manowar.com.

A largely unhelpful list of definitions for the terms listed above:

1. Involucre: one of more whorls of bracts below a flower cluster
2. Stolon: stem that is above the ground and can produce new shoots at nodes
3. Primordium: the growing point of a shoot or leaf
3. Juncus: genus of the rush family
4. Spikelet: Basic unit of grass inflorescence, with a pair outer glumes and one or more enclosed florets
5. Monocotyledons: a flowering plant that has only one seed leaf
6. Digitate: radiating from a common point
7. Culm: stem of a grass plant
8. Sheath: the bottom part of a leaf that surrounds the culm
9. Scabrous: rough to the touch, like sandpaper
10. Puberulent: something covered with very small hairs

08 October 2007


Found Deer Grass or Muhlenbergia rigens in the San Francisco Botanical Garden. It is rare that I am sure about the name of a grass species...but this one had a little metal sign next to it so I'm sure that it was Muhlenbergia rigens.

It's hard to know why certain species of grass are called out for identification in the Botanical Garden and others are not. I expect Deergrass was included because of its importance to Native American crafts and the fact that it is becoming increasingly popular as an ornamental grass. In fact, I think I have seen it at the new UCSF campus at Mission Bay. It seems only the notable grasses get special tags, while the straggly wild oat and brome growing near the chain link fence at the southern edge of the garden do not merit special markers.

Deergrass often reaches a height and width of four feet--and the leaves slightly curve as they arc outward, creating a halo of green and gold. The name Deer Grass refers to the fact that mother mule deer like to shelter very young offspring underneath its leaves. Other animals use it as protection from the elements and predators. Younger versions of the grass can be eaten by animals and birds like to eat the seeds.

Deer grass has also been used by Native American people in central and southern California as a stiff foundation to make baskets. Often thousands of stalks were used in each basket. The importance of grass and rushes in Native American basketmaking will be discussed in later entries in this blog.

This grass is named for Henry Muhlenberg, a Lutheran minister born in 1753. Muhlenberg's father was a patriot in the Revolutionary War and at some point had to hide in the Pennsylvania woods to avoid capture. While in the wild, his son Henry began to become interested in botany and became an important figure in the identification of thousands of different species of flora in the United States. He published widely on botany, with his book on grasses, Descriptio uberior graminum, published in Philadelphia in 1817, two years after his death.

07 October 2007

Wine in the grass

The couple looked very much in love, but they were a little drunk as well. They kissed, they danced to Dave Alvin, and in their bliss, they kicked over their open bottle of red wine onto the grass. I watched them two-step and I watched about a quarter of the bottle empty into the lawn at Marx Meadow at Golden Gate Park.

At a concert like the bluegrass festival, you get an idea of the type and quantity of liquid that spills onto the lawns of urban parks. Beer and bong water. Scotch and soda. Spit. It covers the leaves of the lawn grass (I'm betting it was tall fescue or Festuca arundinacea) and then passes through the soil and around the deep roots below.

None of these liquids are particularly good for the grass. But the grass takes what it needs and grows nonetheless. The grass hides our mistakes and, in time, looks taller and straighter than it did a few days before.

(Photo from errantentity's photostream on flickr)

06 October 2007

Bluegrass (festival and species)

Went to the "Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival" today. The weather was perfect and the bands were a joy to see. Thanks to E. and J. for letting me share their tarp at the Rooster Stage.

However, as it is my duty to cover the wild grass beat, I offer a few words about the bluegrass species (shown above) and how it came to refer to a musical genre.

The term "bluegrass" is named after Bill Monroe and his "Blue Grass Boys," who pioneered the acoustic musical style. Monroe's band was from Kentucky, famous for its bluegrass pastures. Monroe once said of bluegrass, “There’s not a prettier name in the world.”

The common grass name bluegrass (Poa) refers to a large family of two hundred grasses and it is also known as meadowgrass and speargrass. It is native to the United States as well as Europe and Asia. There are 36 varieties seen in California and it is especially important as livestock forage.

Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) is used throughout the United States and is especially popular for ballfields, lawns, and golf courses. Although I have not identified the species in San Francisco, I have read that one can find it in the Bison Paddock in Golden Gate Park.

According to the New York Times, bluegrass is never blue when it is used as a lawn or in a golf course. In these settings, all one sees are the very green leaves of bluegrass. It is the blue-tinged seedhead that gives bluegrass its name. Thus, only when the lawnmowers are put away and bluegrass is allowed to grow to its mature height of two to three feet, can one truly see the blue fields of bluegrass that gave Kentucky its name.

03 October 2007

Rescue Brome at California Street and Sixth Avenue

Discovered a great example of Rescue Brome (Bromus catharticus) grass growing out of the grates of a stormwater drain at California Street and Sixth Avenue. It was the shock of bright green that made it noticeable among the dried leaves and empty Odwalla bottles. It is hard to figure out where the roots of this plant go or how long it is going to survive in this busy intersection.

Rescue Brome originated in South America and was brought to the United States as a new type of grass that could feed grazing animals. It got its name by being one of the first plants to grow in the spring and thus one of the earliest forage grasses for livestock after a long, cold winter.

Rescue Brome can be found in many parts of the world, including Australia and the British Isles. Here it tends to grow in disturbed soil and on roadsides. Although Beecher Crampton doesn't really give it much ink in his book, Grasses in California, it gets a mentioned in a number of websites about flora in the region, including Bay Area Plants at bayareawildflowers.com.

The variety I looked at in the drain had beautiful green and purple flower panicles (flower clusters)--and authors have described these as looking much like an artist's paintbrush.

I have to admit that I felt a little idiotic crouched over the sewer grate gazing at a clump of grass. It was only a matter of time before the police were called--or that I would be run over by the large Lexus SUVs (Lexus GX470, Lexus RX350) that are the common vehicle species of the neighborhood. I decided to snag the largest panicle so that I could study it in the safety of own home.

(photograph at the left is from the PDF "Bay Area Plants" mentioned above, the photograph on the right is by author of the drain at Sixth and California.)

02 October 2007

"God bless the grass that grows through cement"

A walk along the trash-filled vacant lots on and around 16th Street near Mission Bay reminds one of how the appearance of grass is a metaphor for urban decay. Here in the shadow of elevated I-280, you can see how grass sprouts between the cracks of broken sidewalk and buckled pavement. There is great diversity of grass here too, including Wild Oats, Pampas grass, Rescue Brome (Bromus catharticus), I believe, as well as the non-grass common plantain (Plantago major). When development stops and people and industries relocate, it is only a matter of time that grass and other vegetation take over.

The author of Detroitblog has written brilliantly about how areas of abandoned Detroit are now covered in tall grass, trees, wildflowers, and vines--transforming depressed city blocks into an "urban prairie." (see more at www.detroitblog.org/?p=287).

Yet many authors and songwriters celebrate the return of grass in urban settings. They see the appearance of bright green leaves as a sign that nature can fight back against development. A good example of this is the Malvina Reynolds song, God Bless the Grass. While the song addresses far more than just growing grass, the lyrics call on folks to appreciate the simple beauty of nature in even the most run-down spaces. A few lines are quoted below:

They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back.
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do,
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows thru,
And God bless the grass.
. . .
God bless the grass that grows through cement.
It's green and it's tender and it's easily bent.
But after a while it lifts up its head,
For the grass is living and the stone is dead,
And God bless the grass.

Photos: top, from flickr (contributor poodlecake's photostream), bottom, author photograph of lot on 16th Street

01 October 2007

Up on the roof

When the family and I walked in Golden Gate Park this weekend, we took a path that brought us right up to the fence that surrounds the new California Academy of Sciences. Even on a Sunday morning, construction workers were busy on the facade and roof. It looked as if the plant-covered roof, or "living roof," had been finished. It is an amazing project, with dozens upon dozens of trays containing grasses and flowers arranged to form the massive domes that rest on top of the building.

I've always liked how this roof and the de Young just across the Music Concourse suggest two ways of responding to nature in the park. At the Academy, Renzo Piano's living roof is a more literal way of making a building more natural and green. On the facade of the de Young, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron tried to replicate in copper the dappling effect of sunlight filtering through the trees in the park.

According to a promotional booklet put out by one of the firms working on the living roof (Rana Creek), grasses, sedges and rushes play an important role in the project and the domes are being planted with red fescue, Idahoe fescue, June grass, as well as Spreading rush, Foothill sedge and Blue eyed grass.

The architects, landscape architects, and environmental planners involved in the project argue that this planting will provide a habitat for bees and butterfiles, reduce sound, improve air quality, collect storm water, and reduce the temperature of the roof.

But it is the symbolic quality of grass and other plants on the living roof that seems most important. Grass often signifies a certain wildness out of human control--that nature is taking back parts of the urban landscape. Just rows of flowers would not do the trick. The living roof looks as if seeds from the grasses of the park had blown upwards and taken root on the top of the new Academy.

(Image from SFGate)

30 September 2007

Koret Children's Quarter

Visited the new children's playground in Golden Gate Park. There is an impressive array of ornamental grass there, including, I think, a particular type of Japanese Silver Grass (Miscanthus sinensis), known as "Ferner Osten" or "Far East." The grasses are laid out in quite an elaborate fashion, with dozens of ornamentals planted in perfect rows, followed by "Ferner Osten," followed by a another organized set of grasses. This seems so different than the wild and unkempt look of urban grasses growing in vacant lots. I personally would like to see more ornamentals planted in more wild patterns rather than the formal arrangements commonly used for institutional and elite public landscapes in the Bay Area, including art museums, college campuses, and corporate headquarters.

I have to say that the families at the Koret playground on Saturday morning seemed a far less diverse group than the make up of the general populace of the Inner Sunset. I could be wrong, but it seemed very white and professional (ie., iphones and Middlebury College sweatshirts) compared to the rest of the city. Why do recreation spaces become so segregated?

Just got the new Manual of Grasses for North America from Utah State University Press. It is suprisingly workmanlike--but comprehensive with illustrations (seemingly from the early 20th century) of each of the important grasses. I will use it a great deal.

28 September 2007

Street Grass

Photographed the median strip on the south side of the connector road between westbound Geary and Masonic. It's a desolate strip of concrete and wall that folks stare out at while sitting at Tony's Cable Car diner. Closely examined, the strip contains at least five types of grass, including Meadow Barley (Hordeum-brachantherum), Wild Oat, and some sort of fescue. It took a long time to figure out if it was meadow barley or squirrel tail (Hordeum jubatum), but I'm betting on meadow barley.

The meadow barley I see along 16th Street and in Golden Gate Park seems far more stripped down than the examples rendered in the guidebooks, merely a little triangular fountain of bristles, perhaps an inch or two long, shooting up from the very top of the stalk.

Soon I want to come back an identify all the grasses on this 100-foot strip and perhaps even leave a sign identifying the grasses at the spot. This project might be best called a street botanic garden--something that would happen if you invited Situationalists and botanists to the same party.

A great link of the type of meadow barley I'm looking at is on the great Hastings Reserve web site, at:

27 September 2007

Amazing grass

Grass has an ability to grow after it is cut that far exceeds the regenerative abilities of most other plants. Unlike an oak tree, which dies if you cut it off half-way up its trunk, grass can continue to grow after it has been sliced in two. Trees grow from the tips of their branches; grass grows from the bottom of its leaves--thus if you cut the top part of a grass stem or leaves off with a lawn mower, the plant will easily send out new leaves to grow from the bottom. This makes it ideal and able to survive lawn care, not to mention cattle grazing.

Also an ordinary lawn is made up of thousands of different grass plants, some connected to each other by rhizomes (below ground), others by stolons (these are above ground. Some experts say that a 1,000 square feet of lawn might have one million grass plants.

26 September 2007

Quack grass

Hiked in the hills above Stanford. I wanted to see if I could find some of the grasses identified by John Rawlings in his website jrbpgrasses.blogspot.com/.

While there may be a dozen types of grass in a single acre, different species dominate smaller zones within that landscape. I found during the first fifty yards of my walk the primary grass was wild oat. Then there were twenty yards of so of mixed grasses, especially what I think was quack grass or Elymus repens (photo above). A few paces later, quack grass became the dominant grass in the landscape. The grasses appear as if they were different sections of an orchestra, with the brass instruments dominating for several measures, but soon replaced by the string section.

If you read the guidebooks, Elymus repens seems to be one of the world's most evil plants, and even sometimes is called "medusa's head" by gardeners. It orginated in Europe and appeared in the US around 1600. It is believed to crowd out many other species of plants and seems to thrive in disturbed soil. Some websites say it has infested 37 crops in 65 countries. Some farmers call it the "worst pest with which the farmer has to contend."

However, it looked wonderful blowing in the warm wind in Palo Alto.

25 September 2007

European Beach Grass

One of the types of grass used to stabilize the sand dunes of Golden Gate Park is called European beach grass or marram grass--also known as Ammophila arenaria. This grass was used at Cape Cod to hold sands in place and then in Golden Gate Park in 1869. Ammophila arenaria has a system of stems underground or rhizomes that allow it to survive very dry and windy landscapes. The genus name of this grass means "sand lover."

Ammophila arenaria is considered an invasive plant and pushes out native plants. In addition, it takes up or occupies available breeding ground for the Western Snowy Plover. In places like Pt. Reyes, the federal government is performing controlled burns (followed by the application of herbicide) to control the plant.

In some ways, the story of grasses in Northern California is really the story of humankind's attempt to manipulate the environment. I cannot think of another member of the plant family that is as connected to successful and failed efforts to control the landscape.

23 September 2007

Grass in Golden Gate Park

I rode several times in Golden Gate Park with the kids: around the park and down to the Beach Chalet. I saw many types of grass while riding, some of which I collected and brought home. As usual, what looks so easy to identify in the landscape is impossible to find in the textbooks when you get home. Beecher Crampton's Grasses in California is helpful to some extent, but it does not have enough illustrations and the photographs are far too tiny to help with visual identification. Basically, Crampton is for people with some botany experience and it tends to use fairly scientific jargon.

Still, the wonder of so many species that are as yet unknown to me is a great thrill. I have much work in front of me.

No matter. Today I was reading that Golden Gate Park was so covered in sand dunes that a newspaper writer in 1868 said the park was a "dreary waste of shifting sandhills where a blade of grass cannot be raised without four posts to keep it from blowing away." (http://www.towhee.net/birdsf/ggp.html). Park officials planted rye-grass and other plants to keep the sand in place. The grass was the first step; the trees and more grand and ornate plantings followed later.

22 September 2007

Urban grass preserves

Noticed five or six types of grass on the wide curb on the northside of the elevated roadway connecting Masonic and Geary. It looked like there was fescue, California Brome and several other varieties. Part of me would love to create urban grass preserves (grasses of the concrete jungle) by just posting large signs above sites like this. The sign would identify the different species of grass and how many of them were non-native grasses from distant shores. I'll try to get a photo of this stretch of roadway tomorrow.

Also found a lot of California Brome among the grasses on the soccer fields at Crissy Field. California Brome has these complex florets that are so flattened they look two-dimensional--beautifully geometric on one side but razor thin when flipped on its edge. It lives only in California, Oregon, and Washington. They look a little like a natural version of the lanyards I made at camp with long plastic strands. The term Bromus refers to the Greek name for oats.

Botanists value this plant because it is a native grass species, grows quickly, and can take over soil from herbaceous weeds. I've seen both green and brown varieties in our region.

Ornamentals in Oakland

Walked along Thomas Avenue in Oakland (near Broadway Terrace) and saw a number of yards with beautiful displays of ornamental grass. This is an upscale block and it looked as if most of the yards with ornamentals had been put in during the last few years. I'm interested in how the use of ornamental grass works as a signifier of elite culture. I think one way to understand ornamental grass is as an upscale version of lawn furniture--just like one might place a wagon wheel or a wind-blown California Raisin lawn ornament in one's yard. I would like to read some of the upscale garden journals and see how they talk about planting ornamental grass.

That said, the front yards along Thomas Avenue were beautiful, including one which I think was Aristida purpurea, or Purple Three Awn (pictured above--and from http://www.lib.ksu.edu/wildflower/purplethreeawn.html). It is possible to admire and even want to use certain grasses in one's own yard while still understanding them as cultural signifiers?

20 September 2007

Grasses in the wind

I'm reading the great 1995 book, In Full View: Three Ways of Seeing California Plants by Glenn Keator and Linda Yamane, with illustrations by Ann Lewis. The entry on grass is one of the best things I've read on the subject.

The authors point out that most grasses, sedges and rushes depend on wind pollination rather than being pollinated through the help of birds or insects. This is a primary reason why grasses do not have colorful flowers nor have certain types of nectar to attract insects. Many grasses open their small, modest flowers in the winter and spring when the winds are the most prevalent. In fact, the shape of grass seeds allows them to fly for a maximum distance when caught by the wind.

19 September 2007

No ornamentals for Seventh and Mission

On my way to the SF Public Library this morning, I stopped by Thom Mayne's new Federal Building at Seventh and Mission. I had been to the building half a dozen times but I could not remember the landscape nor any ornamental grass. I thought a visit might give me a chance to think about new landscaping trends and expected some types of ornamental grass that I had not seen before.

When I got there, I realized that nearly the entire landscape is hard-packed earth interrupted with a few concrete benches. There are a few elevated patches of lawn tucked under the folding facade of the building, but nearly all the public landscape is just dirt--much like the baseball infield at a municipal park.

Are there plans to landscape this public space? Is the lack of ornamental grass or decorative plantings an overreaction to the number of homeless people who pass and use the space each day? It just seems likely that a public building by one of the nation's most important architects would have a more varied landscape.

18 September 2007

Confusion in the fields

I walked along the eastern end of 16th Street, out near the UCSF campus. It was a delight to realize how many types of grasses can be seen on an hour-long journey. I felt as if I may never be bored again walking in the city.

That said, I feel overwhelmed in my effort to identify the examples I find on my walks. What seems so distinct in the field ends up being hard to identify when I get back to my office.

I did find California Brome or Bromus carinatus, or at least I think I did. According to the great US Dept. of Agriculture website (http://plants.usda.gov/index.html), California Brome is a bunchgrass that is great for erosion control. It is used to rehabilitate landsacpes after mining or wildfires have taken their toll. Livestock and elk don't mind eating this grass and bears and deer can eat it on occasion. At times the seeds are eaten by smaller mammals and game birds, including quail. To my surprise, it is a native plant.

This brome looks far more nasty to the touch than it is--and is actually quite soft.

By the way, the image above comes from an extremely helpful website: "Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, Stanford University: Some Native and Naturalized Grasses" or http://jrbpgrasses.blogspot.com/. Also helpful for examining local grasses is the pdf "District-Wide Wild Plant Photo Guide" which can be found at http://ebparks.com/stewardship/plants/plants.

I also spent quite a bit of time looking at another species out on 16th Street--but only discovered I was looking at Broadleaf Plantain, Plantago major, which is not in the grass family.

17 September 2007

Rangelands in Southern California

In the late 1970s, I ran cross-country and track at University High School in Orange County. We spent much of our time training in the hills that rose up behind the suburban houses and tennis courts. On some days we would take off from school and run for miles and miles until we reached the ocean.

We ran through the active rangeland for the cattle, learning how to hop barbed wire fences and to avoid the Irvine Company jeeps that patrolled the landscape. As we ran, our socks became covered with the seeds of grasses that covered the hillside. I guess we were helping to spread certain types of grasses over the landscape and perhaps into the green parks nearer our homes. I remember the uncomfortable feeling of having a sock full of prickers and having to pull them out at night before putting them into the hamper.

Tony P. has been out to stay with us from New York. He is in town for a celebration of his parent's 50th anniversary. Tony and I met in 1974 while on the cross-country team. He shares my fascination with the landscape and culture of Irvine. This weekend we talked about our runs in the hills--the freedom to explore the landscape in the warm afternoon sun of Southern California.

Irvine was just in its beginning stages of development and much of the land was still given over to ranching and agriculture. We chased teammates through fields of bell pepper and alfalfa. Long-distance running allowed us to experience the beauty of the hills before they were filled with houses and closely-cropped lawns.

"What makes you grow old is replacing hope with regret" - Patty Loveless

16 September 2007

Red Bunny Tails

While walking in Golden Gate Park late this afternoon, I saw how ordinary lawn grass will produce stems and seeds when it is allowed to grow for a few months. Near Ocean Beach, I saw a few clumps of grass, likely fescue, arranged around the base of a tree. While the rest of the lawn had just been trimmed, these grasses were too close to the trunk of the tree to be cut by the lawn mowers of the park workers. The stems of these plants rose up at least a foot and a half high over the leafy sameness of the lawn that surrounded the tree.

Also went to the Sloat Garden Center this afternoon to look at grasses. At Sloat, I can at least be sure that I'm looking at a certain grass because the name is actually on the green plastic tub that holds the grass. I photographed about eight different grasses, including Shenandoah Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum Shenandoah), Chinese Fountain Grass (Pennisetum orientale), Red Bunny Tails (Pennisetum messiacum) (in the photo above) and Little Pinky (Pennisetum macroctacium), which I bought to raise at home.

I have to say that I was overwhelmed after about ten minutes at Sloat. There is such a difference about a tub of grass sold by a commercial plant distributor and grass discovered on a forgotten path in Golden Gate Park.

That said, I can't wait to replant Little Pinky and see how it grows over the semester.

15 September 2007

Quaking Grass

On the edge of Douglas Park above Noe Valley, I found some terrific examples of Quaking Grass or Rattlesnack Grass (Briza maxima). It's a great grass with these upside-down diamond-shaped pods on thin stems that easily rattle in the wind.

According to some scholars, this was one of the first grasses to be grown for non-edible purposes and has long been valued for how it appears in dried flower arrangements.

Briza maxima is not native to California but it does not seem to be a major threat to the indigenous landscape. It has some great nicknames, notably Cowquakes and Didder. When you think about it, Cowquakes and Didder sounds like a British comedy duo from the 1950s.

14 September 2007

Forgotten purple fountain grass

There's a long wooden planter on the west side of Dolores Street (between 16th and 17th Sts.) that contains Pennisetum setaceum or Purple Fountain Grass. The planter looks like someone's attempt to spruce up the block, but now it seems a little worse for wear. The grass shares the box with a wilted geranium and a dying vine clinging to a three-foot-high trellis. The purple grass itself seems in need of watering. Only a few purple plumes rise up from the deep purple and tan leaves.

What happened to this planter? Did the person who put it on the street move away for a better job in another city? Has anyone taken over the care of the box? I poured a glassful of water into the box and hoped for the best.

A few weeks ago I would not have taken a second look at this planter. Now it seems a poignant street artifact.

By the way, fountain grass is considered a problematic and invasive species, especially in Hawaii. The grass is from northern Africa but valued as an ornamental because of its beauty and its ability to thrive almost anywhere. Some have called it a "noxious weed" because it crowds out native plants and it burns easily, thus spreading wildfires. It's funny that a grass that brings natural beauty to Dolores Street could also be seen as a threat by real botanists to the natural landscape of the region.

13 September 2007

Ordinary and Ornamental Grass

Walked this morning around the campus of UC San Francisco. This campus, built in the industrial wasteland of the eastern part of the city, really only has been completed for a year. The campus landscape is largely decorated with oramental grasses--including, I think, Red Fountain Grass

But ordinary grasses grow as well in the vacant, trash-strewn lots next to the campus. Beautiful species of grass spring up among the junked stereos, hunks of concrete, and cans of paint. There seems to a great deal of wild oat, but also beautiful and tall Pampas grass. If you click on the photograph, you can see how toilet paper is dangling from the grass.

Though the grasses on campus are beautiful, they seem somehow too precious, too orderly for my taste. They are planted in great long rows and the stalks move about in the wind as if they were choreographed by an unseen conductor.

The grasses in the lot seem far more valiant, bringing beauty to a harsh landscape that few visit and fewer value.

12 September 2007

Gazing into space

One of the goals of this year-long study of local grasses is to spend more time looking at the real world and less time looking at the newspaper and the web. It seems to me that we would learn far more about the world and our place in it just by observing nature, the built environment, and people going about their lives. Sometimes I wonder how much I actually learn from reading breaking news on the web or paging through the New York Times.

Again, Thoreau had it spot on: "Men will pay something to look into a traveling showman's box, but not to look upon the fairest prospects on the earth." (quoted from the Thoreau blog)

However, it feels a little lame just to stare into space. In American culture, you need to be doing something while looking at the world--having a cell phone in your ear, listening to your ipod, or, at the very least, sitting on a yoga mat. Just meditating on life's rich pagent alone makes you look a little like some creepy guy on medication. Perhaps I'll just wear a bluetooth earpiece the next time I walk through the Botanical Garden.

11 September 2007

Rush to judgment

Took S. on a quick drive out to Golden Gate Park and parked just outside the National AIDS Memorial Grove. Along the opening and along the major entrance path are bunches of Juncus patens or Blue Rush. Up close it is a truly amazing plant (officially a rush as opposed to a grass), a thin shaft bearing an explosion of berry-like pods each surrounded by a sun-ray arrangement of small spikes. The fruit hangs magically from about six inches below the top of the stalk and the rest of the culm is devoid of any inflorescence. It is almost as if the fruit had been glued to the stem.

Blue Rush appears to be a native plant to California and used often as an ornamental "grass." It is beautiful but almost a little other-worldly.

10 September 2007

Thoreau's grasses

The wonderful website, The Blog of Henry David Thoreau, is running excerpts from Thoreau's journals. And on this date in 1860, Thoreau wrote about the beauty of the local grasses. Below a part of this entry:

"Leaving Lowell at 7 A.M. in the cars, I observed and admired the dew on a fine grass in the meadows, which was almost as white and silvery as frost when the rays of the newly risen sun fell on it. Some of it was probably the frost of the morning melted. I saw that this phenomenon was confined to one species of grass, which grew in narrow curving lines and small patches along the edges of the meadows or lowest ground,—a grass with very fine stems and branches, which held the dew; in short, that it was what I had falsely called Eragrostic capillaries, but which is probably the Sporobolus serotinus, almost the only, if not the only, grass there in its prime. And thus the plant has its day.

"Almost every plant, however humble, has thus its day, and sooner or later becomes the characteristic feature of some part of the landscape or other."

What is amazing about this journal entry is how Thoreau displays an interest in the beauty of grasses, while not ignoring the more scientific identification of a particular species.

And again, for me the ordinary grasses are the most common type of plant, yet if one studies them, one realizes their abundant variety and startling differences.

Of course, Thoreau meant for us to look at all of life and try to see what is special in the everyday. In many ways, this idea is echoed by the avant-garde composer John Cage, who once said:

"If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

08 September 2007

Botanical Garden

I want to the Botanical Gardens this afternoon. To be honest, I really can only identify grasses if they have a sign next to them with the name and latin name. I did see Silvergrass (Miscanthus sinensis), which I learn through on-line searches that it is considered an invasive species. (a photograph of it is above) Also I found ‘Elk Blue’ blue-gray rush (Juncus patens). I've come to learn that this really isn't part of the grass family, but often appears in books on the subject as an addition.

The garden, by the way, was absolutely beautiful--is one of of San Franciscos hidden gems. Today It is overcast, as usual, in the Sunset, but it feels like a November afternoon in Chicago or New York.

Beginning of Thoreaugrass blog

Welcome to Wild Grass. I started this blog to track and chronicle my effort to identify local, Bay Area grasses. I also want to write about the beauty of local grasses and how to appreciate such a common and overlooked type of plant.