What are grasses?


What are grasses?

Grasses are arguably the most important plant species in existence. Grasses are technically known as Gramineae (or Poaceae but we will use the most well-known term Gramineae here) and are arguably the most important plant family in the world. Cultivated species of barley, maize (corn), millet, oats, rice, rye and wheat are the staple foodstuff of many peoples around the world in both developed and developing countries.

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Why grasses are important

Corn field © Ita McCobb

Mankind relies on the seeds and grains of many cultivated grasses not only for its own food crops but also to feed domesticated animals (many of which we in turn consume). We feed our animals with grasses either directly as grazing or as hay or silage.

Since grasses are among the first plants to colonize an open terrain, cleared field or forest, grasslands are also becoming an ever-increasingly significant proportion of our world’s vegetation.

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Grass statistics

Cock's-foot Dactylis glomerata © Ita McCobb

The Grass (Gramineae) family is part of the enormous grouping of Flowering plants known as Angiosperms, which is estimated to contain more than 250,000 species of plant.

There are an estimated 12,000 species and 780 subspecies (genera) of grass worldwide, making it the fifth largest species of plants. If you consider all the grasslands, savannah and prairies in the world, grasses probably constitute 20% of all living plant species on this planet!

Grasses are the most important plant species for world economies. They provide staple foods such as barley, maize (corn), millet, oats, rice, rye and wheat as well as forage, building materials (bamboo, thatch, straw, matting) and fuel (ethanol).

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Typical grasses

Perrenial ryegrass Lolium perenne © Ita McCobb

Cultivated grasses include: Barley and Wheat.

Wild grasses include: Dune fescue (Vulpia fasciculate), Rye-grasses (Lolium) and Meadow-grasses (Poa).

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Resources: United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Division of Technology, Industry and Economics; Botany for gardeners, Brian Capon, Third edition, Timber Press; Colour Identi cation Guide to the Grasses, Sedges, Rushes and Ferns of the British Isles and north-western Europe, Francis Rose, Viking, The Penguin Group; Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, London; Missouri Botanical Garden; Latin for gardeners, Lorraine Harrison, Royal Horticultural Society; International Botanical Congress (IBC); RHS Gardeners’ encyclopaedia, Christopher Brickell ed., Dorling Kindersley; The Royal Horticultural Society; The Wild Flower Key, Frances Rose, Warne; Collins tree guide, Owen Johnson & David More,William Collins; Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press.