Chapter 1. Introduction to Grasses

1.1 Parts of the Plant

What is a Grass?

Technically, the word grass refers to species in the (a.k.a. Graminae) plant family. In this book, we have also included grass-like plants, sedges from the Cyperaceae family, and rushes from the Juncaceae family.

Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans)

The Plant

Grasses, sedges, and rushes are in a botanical group referred to as , often called monocots for short. The name monocotyledon is derived from the single (mono) embryonic leaf (cotyledon) contained in the seed of a monocot. Graminoids and other monocots share this characteristic, along with narrow leaves, parallel venation, and fibrous root systems. Use the image on the below to learn the basic anatomy of a graminoid plant.

Inflorescence – The entire reproductive structure of a grass, sedge, or rush is called the inflorescence.

Ligule – The ligule is where the blade and the sheath meet. The ligule may be hairy, smooth, or have some other identifying characteristic of the species.

Blade – Term used to describe the leaf above the sheath.

Culm – This term refers to the stem of a grass or sedge.

Sheath – The sheath is the bottom of the leaf. It surrounds the culm like a tube. It splits open at the top to turn into the blade.

Floret – The name for a grass flower. This drawing shows a mature floret.

Spikelet – A unit made up of one or more florets, rachilla, and glumes.

Rachilla – The structure on which the florets are borne.

Glumes – Bracts that subtend the floret.

Flowers

Neither grasses, sedges, nor rushes have colorful, large, or showy flowers. All are wind pollinated and so do not need bright petals or nectar to attract animal pollinators. For this reason, the flowers are simplified and usually small in size.

Diagram of a typical complete angiosperm flower.
Diagram of a typical complete angiosperm flower.

In grasses, the petals and sepals have been reduced to very small called that enclose the , which contains one . From the  rise two ending in feathery ; adjacent are typically three that open to shed pollen held on long, thin . 

Diagram of a typical grass flower.
Diagram of a typical grass flower.
Diagram of a grass spikelet.
Diagram of a grass spikelet.

The ovary and anthers are usually protected and enclosed by two small papery called the and the . Outside the lemma and palea are two more larger, yet still small, papery bracts called . When the anthers have ripe pollen, the very small lodicules help to open and close the papery bracts, thus assisting with wind pollination. All of these small parts make up the , an individual grass flower. A large or grass usually contains hundreds of florets.

The arrangement of the one or many florets and the branching patterns of these florets determines how grasses are identified, named, and classified. If there is only one floret subtended by the two glumes, the floret is called a one-flowered . If there are two or more florets above the glumes, it’s a multi-flowered spikelet. Different of grasses have specific numbers of florets in a spikelet. The arrangement of spikelets in an inflorescence is also characteristic of specific genera. To see these small flower parts, you need a hand lens or, ideally, a microscope. This is often where many people give up on learning grass identification! However, you can easily learn the differences in the large seedheads that will help you identify many grasses.

Different types of inflorescences. A = panicle, B = raceme, C = spikelet.
Different types of inflorescences. A = panicle, B = raceme, C = spike.

Sedge inflorescences are simpler. However, they are just as small, and, again, the identification may require a hand lens or microscope. Sedges can be comprised of or flowers. Sedge female flowers are each enclosed by a small sack-like structure called a . The shape of the perigynium is often used in sedge identification. Many sedges have female flowers in one section (often lower on the flowering stem), with the male flowers that contain only the pollen in another section, (often on top of the stem). If you look closely at sedge flowers in early spring when they are shedding pollen, you can see the larger, more conspicuous female flowers growing below the male flowers. The flower (male or female) and bract is called a spikelet. Spikelets are attached directly to the axis that forms the inflorescence. Explore the image below to see the inflorescence of a sedge.

 

 

 

Reproductive structures of threadleaf sedge

Spike – This is a Carex filifolia spike containing both male and female flowers. The male flowers make up the top half of the spike, distinguished by anthers. The female parts make up the bottom half of the spike, distinguished by the three feathery stigmas emerging from the perigynium.

Female Flower – The female flower is enclosed by a sack called a perigynium. Three feathery stigmas emerge from the top of the perigynium.

Male Flower – This male flower has the characteristic leaf-life scale which encompasses the three anthers emerging from the base.

Rushes have the simplest inflorescence. The flowers are typically bisexual. From beneath each flower emerge six small green or brown, petal-like structures called .  Typically, there are many rush flowers held together in a cluster at the end of a stem.

Typical rush inflorescence.
Typical rush inflorescence.
Typical rush flower.
Typical rush flower.

Stems and Leaves

To quickly tell the difference between grasses, sedges, and rushes, look at the stem and leaves. Grass stems  are normally round like a straw, and their leaves come off in two ranks, meaning one on either side of the plant—whereas the stems of sedges are usually triangular, and their leaves are three-ranked. It can be hard to feel the three edges when you roll the stem between your fingers.

Rushes have round stems as well, but unlike grasses the leaves of rushes grow from the base of the plant, so the stems lack the nodes that arise from leaf joints and are completely smooth.

A view of muskingum sedge ‘Oehme’ from above clearly showing the three-ranked leaves of a sedge
A view of muskingum sedge ‘Oehme’ from above clearly showing the three-ranked leaves of a sedge
A zoomed in photo of little bluestem. The yellow arrows point to nodes on the stems.
A zoomed in photo of little bluestem. The yellow arrows point to nodes on the stems.

This famous poem can help you remember the differences between the three:

Sedges have edges;

Rushes are round;

Grasses have bumps all the way to the ground.

In the poem, “edges” refers to the triangular stem of a sedge. “Round” refers to the smooth round stem of a rush. “Bumps” refers to the nodes or joints where leaves attach to the stem of a grass.

Illustration credit for this section in order:

American beakgrain: Hitchcock-Chase Collection of Grass Drawings, on indefinite loan from the Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Angiosperm flower, grass flower, grass spikelet, inflorescence type:  Clark, Lynn G., and Richard W. Pohl. Agnes Chase’s first book of grasses: the structure of grasses explained for beginners. Smithsonian Institution, 2012.

Threadleaf sedge, rush flower, rush inflorescence: United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service Collection, courtesy Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA.

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Gardening with Native Grasses in Cold Climates by Diane M. Narem and Mary Hockenberry Meyer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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