National Geographic : 1921 Jun
FAMILIAR GRASSES AND THEIR FLOWERS BY E. J. GESKE AND W. J. SHOWALTER (With Illustrationsin Color from Paintingsby E. J. Geske) THE dynasty of the grass family dates back to the days of the fore fathers of the horse, the camel, and many others of the important her bivorous animals of the present day, and there is little doubt that the evolution of many animals into orders and forms of today was greatly facilitated by the ad vent of the grass family in the vegetable kingdom. Today, of all the plants that cover our earth, grasses rank second to none in im portance. In the matter of utility to man and beast, no plant or group of plants has ever played so great a part in the history of the world, and we may well say with Solon Robinson that "Grass is King." The Io,ooo species of the order, of which I,3oo are indigenous to the United States, are distributed throughout all the zones of the earth, and range in size from a few inches in height to veritable forest trees towering sixty feet and more. Wherever rainfall sufficient to sustain plant life occurs, and at intervals of time not too distant, and with temperatures above freezing at least part of the year, some members of the family will be found. They readily adapt themselves to soil and conditions and flourish and propagate their kind. Regions that afford ideal conditions are the great prairies of the United States and Canada, southern Russia, Siberia, the grassy plains of South America, and Africa. THE BAMBOO IS A GIANT GRASS Wherever the rainfall is insufficient for forests and the climate is not too arid, grasses prevail over all but the hardiest vegetation. In these areas often more than 90 per cent of the indigenous plant life belongs to the grass order, and, ex cept where cultivation of some species has excluded its rivals, it is not uncom mon to find from twenty to sixty distinct species inhabiting almost any locality. Rice, wheat, corn, oats, barley, and rye are grasses. They enter so largely into the relations of mankind that the country which is best able to supply the world with these necessary articles of food com mands the destinies of nations. Several groups of grasses, like sugar cane, furnish sugar and its by-products. Brooms, paper, rugs, hats, and innumer able articles of commerce are made of grasses, and even houses are built and furnished with their products, not only in darkest Africa, but in many civilized countries. The giants of the order are the bam boos, the great trunks of which furnish material for an endless number of articles of commercial importance. The pigmies are the various forage grasses, which furnish pasturage for domestic animals and beautify our parks and lawns. Nor is the story of the merit of the grasses more than half told when it is related that they are "Man's bread and meat; many things good, and most things sweet." GRASSES GUARD THE SOIL Grasses are the overseers of the soil. What is more irresponsible than the sands of the seashore and of the desert ? Driven hither and thither by every shifting wave and wind, they now drift here and lodge there. Now they bury forests, now they expose the bones of those who lie asleep in God's Acre, while in the waste spaces of earth the sand-storm overwhelms the traveler and his caravan. If it were not for the grasses, the soil of hillside and plain would be as shift ing as the sands of seashore and desert. Every raindrop would be a vehicle on which a grain of the soil would steal a careless ride down to the sea. But the grasses pin the soil down to its duty. The barren hillside may become a mass of gullies and gulches, but where the grass is master, the soil becomes the faithful servant of man. Even the trees and the shrubs would not possess a sure footing, did not the grasses help hold down the soil around them.