Native wild grasses are all around us. En masse they form important distinct ecosystems. Often overlooked, grasslands are found all over the world, the foundation for modern life as we know it.
Wild grasses are wild flowers essentially and we have around 160 native grasses in the UK, of the tens of thousands that can be found worldwide.
They reproduce in a similar manner to flowers but they are wind pollinated, producing their own pollen but not nectar. They grow vegetatively, which means they grow from the base, unlike most flowers. This contributes to their success and often their dominant nature. The fruit of a grass is the grain and hugely important as the basis of most of the cereal crops grown worldwide. They have contributed, without a doubt, to the success of modern farming practices and the global economy as we know it. Sugar cane is also a grass, another crop that has dictated the fortunes of history. Without it there would not have been any slave trade or industrial revolution that first occurred in the UK. Rice is another grass that is the staple food for 3 billion people worldwide. You would be forgiven if you thought that cotton is from the grass family, but in fact is from sedge family.
Back to our gardens, our very own mini ecosystem. We can often find native grasses growing within them, often treated like “weeds”. However, it is easy to belie the importance of them. I’ve found around 5 different wild or true grasses in my garden including wall barley and cock’s-foot that have probably blown in from the fields nearby. I think they look quite beautiful wafting in the breeze. Apart from enhancing our visual pleasure of our gardens, they also have a crucial role for invertebrates and other wildlife.
Some are very important for butterflies to lay their eggs on. Cocksfoot orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata) is one such native grass. Many butterflies lay their eggs on cock’s foot including The essex skipper, large skipper, meadow brown, ringlet, speckled wood, scotch angus and the small skipper. Another species the wall brown is in a severe worrying decline of inland populations therefore a priority for conservation efforts. ( www.ukbutterflies.co.uk )
Grasses that have been bred to be more showy are used as ornamental grasses. Examples of these are Deschampsia (tufted hair grass), Lagurus ovatus, Hares tail, Briza maxima (quaking grass) Miscanthus, etc. These and others have been part of a garden design look for quite a long time and are widely available in garden centres. I too have been very keen on this “design” look and have many ornamental grasses that I’ve bought from garden open days and plant sales such as, Pennisetum Miscanthus, Sinensis Zebra grass , Phalaris arunindinacea , Ribbon grass (which spreads like mad), lots of Stipa tenuissima and Feather grass amongst others.
Bamboos, sedges and ornamental grasses are also popular as they are slender, tall, light and airy so you can intermix and weave them with other perennials. This look ideally replicates a “meadow look”. Just yesterday I pulled a clump of what was possibly false oat grass from where it had seeded itself in a crack in the drive way. It come up incredibly easily and I re planted it in the middle of a flower bed. It looks just as good as ‘garden bought’ grass or the Stipa tenuisssima next to it.
The identification of wild grasses can become tricky and I would suggest allowing some of these grasses in your garden even if you’re not 100% sure which ones they are. They can look as appealing as any ornamental grass bought from a garden centre and will undoubtably be more wildlife friendly.
They provide great platforms for hopping opportunities, shelter and cover for insects. Birds will perch (often precariously) from the stems, with the grass swaying side to side and launch themselves off. I take great delight watching the birds using the grasses. Barley looks lovely swaying in the wind.
Conversely, and somewhat confusingly, most experts in wildlife gardening and planting for wildlife, recommend using Yellow rattle (Rhinathus Minor) to break down the roots of grass to give the seeds of wild flowers more space to germinate. Authors like David Goulson, state that grasses aren’t desirable as they grow too fast and tall and can smother out more delicate plants. So finding a balance is advised.
Lastly overall grasses and grasslands are very important for the avoidance of soil erosion and flooding and store more carbon than forests. They have binding roots and a creeping habitat which helps to keep soils in place and are really important in the ecosystem. Let us not forget the wonderful grasslands around the world, the Prairies of the northern Americas, the Steppe and the Savanna all hugely important ecologically. Put that macro into your micro garden and it becomes part of the circle of ecology and biodiversity. Grasses are ancient, and were around 70 million years ago.
In summary, the benefits of wild grasses are:
Disclaimer Julia Stofa is a part-time working gardener specialising in wildlife gardens and is a keen naturalist. Her observations are made from her experience and she isn’t a trained botanist. Her observations are based experience only.