Wednesday, October 14, 2015

"Zoom In: Grass Family"

Grasses provide gorgeous color, texture and architecture. Photo by Jason Holmes

Miscanthus flowers backlit by the sun.
Photo by Jason Holmes.

By Sarah Leach Smith

You may simply think of mowing your front lawn when someone starts talking about different kinds of grasses. Be prepared to have your mind blown – there are more than 10,000 species in the grass family! With varying heights, colors and floral displays, grasses have a lot to offer the home gardener beyond turf. 

However, having that many species to choose from can be overwhelming. Where to begin? Our upcoming class, “Zoom In: Grass Family,” may be just the ticket. This class will be taught by high school teacher Robert Thornhill, who is a passionate promoter of ornamental grasses, and will be held on Thursday, November 5. Thornhill was more than happy to oblige when we asked him to tell us more about his experience with this versatile plant family.

Thornhill teaching a class.
 Photo provided by Robert Thornhill.

 Q: Tell us about your background and experience.
A: I'm a high school science teacher during the week and a plant-lover on the weekends.  I fell in love with the floral world during undergraduate school in Alabama and then had the opportunity a few years later to pursue that passion as a graduate student at N.C. State, where I earned a master's degree studying the flora of longleaf pine savannas in the N.C. Coastal Plain.  For that to have counted as research, and not just pure pleasure, was inexplicably wonderful to me! 

Q: What can we expect from your class, “Zoom In: Grass Family”? What do you think participants will gain from this class?
The magical flowers of pink muhly grass.
Photo by Micaela Unda.
A: The class will provide an overview of the grasses, starting with their relationships to other, more familiar plants and then proceeding to their cultural and economic significance.  We will then delve into the morphology of grasses, with special emphasis on the unique flowers and fruits of the family (Yes, grasses produce both flowers and fruits!).  We will then proceed with a survey of some of the most commonly encountered grasses, including those used in landscaping and those growing wild.  Finally, we'll conclude with an examination of grass specimens--either pressed specimens brought into the classroom or living specimens in the garden (or, time permitting, both!).

Q: What are you most excited about in this class?
Close-up of Miscanthus flowers.
Photo by Micaela Unda.
A: Grasses are everywhere, occurring worldwide in nearly every environment--even Antarctica (which hosts only one other flowering plant species!).  They are the 5th largest plant family on Earth and the most economically important, providing over half of humanity's calories.  Yet despite their abundance and unrivaled importance, they are poorly known by almost everyone except well-trained botanists.  But this is totally unnecessary and even tragic, as grasses are far more accessible (and beautiful) than most people realize.  What excites me most about this class, therefore, is the opportunity to share the "secrets" of grasses with people who may not know their graminoid brethren--yet!

Space is still available in "Zoom In: Grass Family." For more information, you may visit the Duke Gardens website. To register, give us a call at 919-668-1707.

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