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.