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.

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