Saturday, June 27, 2015

Smooth Brome in Full Glorious Bloom

In Salmon, Idaho, the springtime blues of lilac and larkspur are fading to yellow sunflower, mullein, and mum. Their colors echo the intensifying sun, as it pauses to catch its breath before marching south again. The gardens bursting with blooms catch our eye and make it easy to overlook the grasses. Although many people don’t think of them as “flowering plants,” bromes and bluegrasses bust out with intricate, usually overlooked, flowers.

A pickup truck stopped while I was photographing smooth brome flowers on a late spring morning. The passenger-side window motored down and the designated questioner asked if I had found a fawn. “No,” I said, “I’m photographing the bromegrass in full, glorious bloom. Who could resist?” DQ smiled through his snort. “I could.” The designated driver drove on.

Each grass flower's yellow anthers are full of pollen and easy to see. The feathery stigmas, which catch the pollen, are tiny white flecks. Here's a detailed photo of johnsongrass flowers.

The beauty of grasses is subtle, but their gifts to people are not: grasses feed the world. Corn, plus wheat and its cousins oats, rye, and barley dominate agriculture in the U.S. Rice is the staple food of more of the world's people than any other. Millet and sorghum are the main food crops in West Africa, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer. Grasses even provide dessert: sugar cane is a grass.

Grasses have even earned their own field of study. My friend Matt Lavin teaches agrostology at the University of Montana. He shares his artful images of grasses, and other plants, on Flickr. No telling how many DQs have stopped to wonder about Matt.

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