By Liz Summer, I Start Wondering Columnist
The seasonal expressions of plants can serve as a bridge, reconnecting each of us to the grand and timeless cycles of nature, an often overlooked backdrop behind the busy pitter-patter of daily human activity. Easiest of all to recognize and feel is the exuberant spring explosion of wild flowers, joyous and vivacious. For those in more northern climates, there is the fall changing of the leaves from green to gold, red and orange.
But, what is there going on right now, here in central Texas? After all, our trees don’t respond to the shortening days with the abrupt urgency of trees preparing for fall freezes. There is still enough warmth and light to make it practical for trees to keep green leaves engaged and active for at least a month or so longer. Even then, it will be a gentle transition – the leaves will hang on, turning brown and dropping slowly, and the moment the tree turns bare will come quietly.
There is, however, another herald of fall here in central Texas that is less obvious and yet when truly seen is as beautiful and ubiquitous as any. It’s the seeding of wild grasses, forming rippling waves in the breeze and lacy veils through which to view the sunrise and sunsets. For most people, wild grasses are something to ignore, cut, manage, overlook or be annoyed with. Even more aggressively, chemical warfare is often waged on grasses in an effort to keep properties looking tidy and neat. Brown trenches of poisoned, dead and dying plants are now viewed as the preferred style by many landowners.
A wonder of grasses is that their meristem (“growing cells”) is at the base of the stalk, and not the tip (which is where the meristem resides in a broadleaf plant or tree). To put this in practical terms, a tree dies when it is chopped down because the meristem was at the tip, but when a grass is chopped down, it keeps growing. This is because grasses evolved to be grazed on. The explosion of grasses across the globe corresponds to the rise in mammals, in particular the vast herds of grazing animals such as buffalo. Human society also owes much to the great grass food crops of wheat, barley, corn and oats.
A Blade of Perfection
Common central Texas varieties of grass include Bermuda, grama, bluestem, switchgrass, Indian grass and Johnson grass. But don’t really worry about the names –and especially resist the urge to label grasses as weeds or invaders. Those labels distract from the appreciation of their subtle perfection. Instead, notice the differences in the seed heads, the height and thickness of the stems. I particularly love how grasses ripple in the breeze, like rounded waves on a green ocean.
This image is captured beautifully in many Japanese animations, where the artists come from a tradition of seeing the extraordinary beauty in the ordinary. The graceful swaying in the slightest breeze can be appreciated even while in the car at a stoplight by observing tall grasses that haven’t been tamed yet. Just as splendid is viewing the sun through filigreed grass heads. These images are hard to capture in words or photos – they must be experienced firsthand.