Grass​—Not Just the Green Beneath Your Feet

FOR some it is just the green stuff outside the house that they have to mow. For farmers and soccer players, on the other hand, it is their workbench. And for children, it is the ideal playground. But does the term grass only refer to the turf of lawns, farms, and playing fields?

If you live in an urban high-rise building, you might assume that you have very little to do with grass of any sort. However, almost all of us have daily contact with some type of grass and the products made from it. What basically is grass? And how do we make use of it?

What Is Grass?

Let us take a closer look at this humble plant. Commonly, all kinds of low, green plants are called grass. In addition to plants scientifically designated as part of the grass family (Gramineae, or Poaceae), some regard sedges and rushes as grass. But only the grass family is said to be true grass. Its members usually have some common distinctive features. Take a good look at what you think is a stem of grass.

Is the stem round and hollow, and does it have nodes, or joints? Are the leaf blades long, flat, and narrow, showing parallel veins and rising out of sheaths that encircle the stem? Do successive blades arise on opposite sides of the stem, creating two vertical rows? Are the roots a tangled network of tiny threads rather than an outbranching main root? Are the flowers​—if you can see any—​inconspicuous and small, forming a spike, raceme, or panicle? If your answers have been yes, that plant probably belongs to the grass family.

Although the grass family is rather uniform in appearance, it displays staggering variety, with between 8,000 and 10,000 species. The height of the plants range from about three quarters of an inch [2 cm] to 130 feet [40 m], in some bamboos. Grass makes up a major part of the vegetation that covers the earth. And no wonder, since it is one of the most adaptable plant groups on earth, growing in polar regions and deserts, in tropical rain forests, and on windswept mountain slopes. Entire vegetation areas​—such as steppes, llanos, pampas, prairies, and savannas—​are dominated by grass.

Robustness is one of the keys to the success of various grass types. Unlike many other plants, grass grows, not at the tip, but in growth areas above the nodes. And new shoots might start from stems growing horizontally on or under the ground. So when the lawn mower or  the cow’s teeth cut away the tip, grass keeps growing, whereas many other plants stop. That is why frequent mowing favors grass at the expense of other plants and can make a lawn dense and beautiful.

Furthermore, with most grasses, if the stem is bent over by the wind or trodden underfoot, it can raise itself erect by growing faster on the side facing the ground. For these reasons grass usually recovers quickly after being damaged, which gives it an edge over other plants in the fight for sunlight. And we can be happy that grass is such a sturdy plant. After all, we depend on it.

A Versatile Plant

Grass is not only the most abundant but also the most important flowering-plant family on earth. A botanist said that grass is the foundation of our food. It is “like a dam protecting mankind from famine.” Try to remember what you ate today. Did you start with a bowl of cereal made with millet, rice, oats, or sorghum? Well,  then, you ate grass seeds. Or perhaps you had a roll or other kind of bread. The flour used was made from grass kernels​—wheat, rye, barley, and other grains are all grasses. Cornflakes and corn pudding as well as tortillas made from corn flour are no exception. Corn, or maize, is​—you guessed it—​a grass too. You had sugar in your tea or coffee? More than half of all sugar is made from sugarcane, a grass. Even milk and cheese are in a sense processed grass, as that is what cows, sheep, and goats usually feed on.

What about your lunch? Pasta as well as pizza crust are made from wheat flour. Chickens and other fowl are often fed with grain. Cattle are fed all kinds of grasses. Thus, to a great extent, the eggs, poultry, and beef we eat are the result of grass being processed by an animal’s metabolism. And you can also drink grass. Aside from milk, many popular alcoholic beverages are made from grass: beer, whiskey, rum, sake, kvass, and most vodka.

Now please do not worry that your favorite dish was not mentioned. It is just not possible to list all the foodstuffs made from grass. By some estimates, more than half the calories consumed worldwide come from grasses. No wonder, for grass covers up to 70 percent of all cultivated land!

Grass is not only good for food, however. If your house has walls made of clay and straw, it is the grass that gives them the necessary strength. In different parts of the world, roofs are thatched with grass. In Southeast Asia bamboo is used for scaffolds, pipes, furniture, walls, and many other applications. Mats and baskets are woven from grass, and it provides raw material for glue and paper. Do not forget your clothes. Most animals from which we get wool and leather feed on grass. The grass species Arundo donax provides the reed for woodwind instruments, such as the clarinet. No other material has been found that can match the natural reed for that purpose.

Grass covers and adorns much of the earth. And what a beautiful, peaceful, and relaxing sight is a green meadow or a well-kept lawn! Because of the sheer mass of the green vegetation it produces, grass is a major oxygen supplier. Its fine roots also protect the soil from erosion. Keeping its versatility in mind, we are not surprised to learn that the usage and cultivation of grass has a long history.

History of Grass

We find the first mention of grass in the Bible’s creation account. On the third creative day, God said: “Let the earth cause grass to shoot forth.” (Genesis 1:11) * All major civilizations have depended on some form of grass. For example, the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans ate wheat and barley as staple foods; the Chinese, millet and rice; the Indus people, wheat, barley, and millet; the Maya, Aztecs, and Incas, corn. And the endless steppes provided the needed grass for fodder for the horses of the Mongol cavalries. Yes, grass has always been of great importance to mankind.

The next time you see a waving cornfield, a lush green meadow, or just humble blades of grass growing between stones in a sidewalk, you might stop and think of this marvelous and most versatile plant family. You might also be moved to thank its Great Designer, Jehovah God, as the psalmist did in singing: “O Jehovah my God, you have proved very great. . . . He is making green grass sprout for the beasts, and vegetation for the service of mankind, to cause food to go forth from the earth . . . Praise Jah, you people!”​—Psalm 104:1, 14, 31-35.

[Footnote]

^ par. 17 It may be that the ancient writer of this text did not differentiate between grasslike plants and what are now considered true grasses.

[Diagram/Pictures on page 16, 17]

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Structure of grass plants

Main forms of grass flowers

Spike

Raceme

Panicle

Fibrous roots

Sheath

Blade

Stem

Node

 [Pictures on page 18]

Did you eat your grass today?

[Picture on page 18]

Or did you drink some?

[Picture on page 18]

They too feed on grass

[Picture on page 18]

You can also live in something made of it