Grasses, sculptural forms worthy of a plinth

Grasses are easily overlooked, yet have lovely shape and form. There are so many to be seen alongside any footpath, here off Reach Rd, Burwell.

Grasses are out in flower now. Did you know that they are as much flowers as a rose or the fanciest orchid? They are easily overlooked as they use wind for pollination, so do not need colourful petals, or scent that other flowers use to tempt insects to visit them, to pick up their pollen and transport it to another flower.

Grasses have lovely shape and form, shown to its best when light dances through their flower heads. I love looking at their dazzling display on the patch of lawn we have left uncut.

Yet now I have started taking time to look at them, I realise they have their own beauty and intricacy. Each species of grass has its own shape, some delicate and spreading, some slender and compact. When you take time to look you will see a variety of often dazzling forms, carefully designed to maximise the flowers’ chances of successful pollination, so their seeds are fertilised.

Look closely now at grasses and you will see the male parts, anthers, dangling, so their pollen is caught by the wind and carried to the feathery female parts, stigmas, to fertilise the waiting seed. Here a Cock’s-foot flower head is open for business.

Grasses are playing quite a game of catch, so often spread their flower heads wide to maximise their chance of picking up pollen as it flies through the air. Male parts – anthers – dangle outside their protective flower heads so any breath of wind will blow their pollen onto the opened feathery female – stigmas – parts of another plant. So a seed, as it were, is born.

Cock’s-foot is named after the shape of its flower head, that looks like a cock’s foot, with the spur at the back.

I am still learning to identify different grasses. I started with cock’s-foot, named for the shape of its flower head, which – with a bit of imagination – is in the form of a cockerel’s foot. You may already know it. Its a good grass to start with as it is common, easy to pick out and there is no other grass to confuse it with!

Cock’s-foot flower head. While grasses are not dependent on insects for pollination, they provide food for many insects.

If a lot of cock’s-foot is present, this suggests the ground has high levels of nutrient. In the world of conservation having a lot of this grass in a meadow is therefore, ironically, often not a good sign. Many of our native wild plants developed in an environment where the soil was poor. When the soil has lots of nutrients, they are quickly out competed by the ‘thugs’ which take over. Instead of having a range of flowers, a few – nettles, thistles, cow parsley – grow at a great rate and don’t give the slenderer plants – orchids, small scabious, meadow buttercups for example – a chance.

Shadow drawing is fun – you quickly get a good result – and learn about grasses’ shapes at the same time.

Grasses are ‘made’ for shadow drawing. Pick several grasses, hold them just above a piece of paper and draw round their shadows. I found myself looking closely at their different structures and getting a presentable (depending on your standards!) sketch at the same time. If, like so many of us, you aren’t that confident at drawing, this is a great way to get started. You can then colour or paint in the shapes, either realistically, or have fun with bright colours to make it your own.

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