There is a whole world of grasses at our feet waiting to be explored and appreciated as part of the scenery and of our rural environment.
If we count the cereal crops, which we should include because botanically and genetically they belong amongst the grasses, then 26 species have been identified in recent years. They were located in 10 habitats, and represented 9 botanical families.
Does the parish really offer so many habitats for grasses?
It does: there are the arable fields and the pastures to name two examples, and more examples include lawns and gardens, where grasses occur both by design and as weeds. There are the hedge bottoms and the road-side verges, and now there is Willoughby Wood. Wet places, with their own grass species, include the brook and its banks. Even the occasional waste ground and the nooks and crannies have their own species.
Do grasses all look the same? Perhaps they do to the casual observer, or when viewed in the distance. But on closer inspection there is a world of detail. When the flowering season is under way the differences between species are easier to notice, though detailed identification can be difficult.
Although we have only a small share of the 100 or so grass species known in Britain, our local grasses are an unsung part of our heritage. They may not be as impressive as our trees. They may not be as pretty as our wild flowers; but their colours change with the seasons, and sometimes their leaves glisten in the sun and wave in the wind.
They are also useful of course, since cattle and sheep are very much part of our local heritage, and grassland is a characteristic feature of the English midlands countryside. Grassland products, such as Stilton cheese, are part of our food heritage. From pigs fed on the by-products of cheese making we have Melton Mowbray pork pies. The increasing number of horse and pony owners and riders know about their horses’ appreciation of grazing and hay.
But we must not fall into the trap of viewing everything in nature with rose tinted spectacles. Gardeners and farmers will remind us that the grasses include some nasty weeds. Indeed couch, or twitch, is so hard to get rid of that its notoriety has caused it to have many regional names. To avoid confusion this is sometimes a case for using its botanical name (Agropyron repens): a name referring to its creeping underground rhizomes, so awkward to completely remove when weeding.
So take a look at the grasses this year. There is more to them than meets the eye.
By David Charles, first published in the Parish Magazine