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)