A Botanist in the Garden - Discoveries about Two Grasses

Before I launch in - Anybody know what that caterpillar munching on a hairy honeysuckle leaf is? I saw it this morning as I was taking photos for this post.

The deeper into restoration gardening I get the more of a botanist at heart I am becoming.

Last Wednesday, I had a four hour consultation with a botanist who works for Central Coast Wilds - Ellen Holmes. She also runs their nursery. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, they are a restoration landscaping company, who will grow from your native seed, to order, and also bring crews out to work on restoration landscaping jobs. We clambered all over everywhere and examined so much and I got so much straightened out. It was heavenly. I learned a lot and have forgotten more. I'm just going to focus on a couple things in this post.

First - the needlegrass I've been calling Nassella lepida is in fact Nassella cernua. I actually have both, but had not noticed the key difference.

Ellen brought a marvelous flora with her, An Illustrated Field Key to the Flowering Plants of Monterey County – Mary Ann Matthews. It's available only from the Monterey chapter of CNPS, and they don't seem to have any on hand at the moment. Santa Cruz county has many of the same plants as our next-door-neighbor down the coast, so it's a great aid.

She read off the length of the awns which is a distinguishing characteristic - N. cernua has much longer awns than N. lepida. (4 cm vs 2.5 cm) I went out this morning to get pictures and of course, after yesterday's hot weather, most of the seeds have flown! But above shows the very long awns of Nassella cernua - and you'll just have to imagine the awns of the N. lepida being about half that length and straighter.

So I propagated only Nassella cernua. I'll have to try propagating N. lepida too, and also learn more about these two plants - their range and so on.

Moving on to grass number two....

The other great discovery is that the other grass I've been propagating as Mellica imperfecta is in fact Mellica torreyana. Above is a bank of it growing below the redwood grove. They are very similar but M. torreyana has a bit more of an slender and drooping habit - M. imperfecta is a bit more spreading and upright. Ellen talked about a plant's "gestalt" and I think when you have a lot of experience you get that sense of things. That caused her to question my naming.

The key distinguishing factor between the two plants is very very tiny. The last floret on the spikelet is sterile. It has a "rudiment" in it. That rudiment is either a small blob on a long stalk (think lollipop) - M. torreyana. Or it's a long blob on a short stalk - (think Dove bar) - M. imperfecta.

Here are some young Mellica torreyana plants I grew from seed from this bank, and then planted in a bald spot. They look very happy.

Ellen asked me if I would take the approach of a purist like Randy Morgan, botanist with Elkhorn Nursery - who simply removes weeds and observes what grows, or if I would bring in plants that are more or less local and could grow there but just don't.

I do have a very strong puritanical streak that puts me in Randy's camp - but as I get closer to the house, I become more of a regular gardener. However, if I go with Randy's approach, then, as Ellen says, that cleared north facing slope just wants to become mixed evergreen forest, and if I let it go, that's what it will become again. I don't want that. So I guess I'm a bit conflicted. I would be more of a recreation/restoration gardener at this point I guess, keeping some control mainly for fire safety, and maybe also for aesthetics. But really, I am so in awe of Mother Nature, I prefer just removing the plants we humans have introduced. Then again, as I blogged about here, this land has been tended for 10,000 years by its native people before we late comer immigrants arrived.

A book Ellen mentioned on that topic is the well-known Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson. Something for the bookshelf to be sure. Town Mouse - didn't you mention that book in a post some time back?


I would venture a guess... clearwing or bumblebee moth... they like honeysuckle, and are fat and green. I can't see from your pic but they typically have a little "hair" or spike off their tail-end like a hornworm.
Country Mouse said…
Pamela, I went back to see if I could find it again and couldn't - too much bank! I forget where I snapped the shot. Dang!
Christine said…
CM, I am so so ecstatic about the reintroduction to your garden!
I understand where you're at when deciding how accurate you want this to be. Ecologically correct, but YOUR idea of ecologically correct! I'd be in the same boat!
A thought provoking post CM. I have a grass similar to your Mellica growing here, but I'm not yet at all well versed on which grasses here are native and which are not. Clearly I need to do some homework!

I'm constantly conflicted. I never even considered native gardening/restoration until we lived here. The more I appreciate the interconnectedness of the plants, the insects, and the entire ecological web just on this property, the more I want to just leave things be (except for removing invasive/aggressive plants). But the hands on gardener part of me wants to keep planting, bring in more flowers for the pollinators, and improve the overall aesthetic here, at least close to the house. Most of our land is wild, and I love discovering new things as I walk around the property, but along the driveway, and in the orchard, I'd like to see more color. If I stick with what actually volunteers to grow here, the color would be a bit slim once the monkeyflowers finish blooming. Perhaps I can be content to be a purist for the majority of the land, but bring in some regional, more colorful, well-behaved natives in the more cultivated areas. It is a challenge, and a responsibility not to upset the existing balance.
Country Mouse said…
Ellen gave me a correction on the grasses which I input - M. Torreyana is more slender and drooping and M. imperfecta is the more upright one. She also wonders if R. Morgan does work for Elkhorn Nursery as he has various research projects ongoing at UC Santa Cruz that sound very interesting.
Country Mouse said…
One more correction that I also made in the body of the text - I got the key factor for IDing M. imperfecta dn M. torreyana backwards. It should read - and does - that the rudiment is ...

a small blob on a long stalk (think lollipop) - M. torreyana. Or it's a long blob on a short stalk - (think Dove bar) - M. imperfecta.

Next time I WILL do a voice recording of the session!
Barbara E said…
Interesting, CM! One of the things about gardening that I really enjoy is having these "conflicts" with oneself on how much to alter and control the landscape. Thanks, also, for the info on the grasses. I get a bit sloppy with the nassellas. I planted cernua and purpurea and can no longer tell who is who. In fact, they may have hybridized making it really difficult. Anyway, gardens grow and change and so do our ideas about them. Have fun!
Country Mouse said…
Hi Barbara - Ellen did say it is difficult to tell N. cernua from N. purpurea and that they hybridize. I'm disappointed with myself as I didn't get any N. lepida before the seeds all blew away for the year - oh well, next time. I'm glad to know some readers do find these minutiae of interest!
Anonymous said…
Interesting post, Town Mouse! Ifind it fascinationg to identify plants and it's even nice to find out the true identity of one! I'd like to learn more about the grasses I have,and hope I find thhat some are native. I've found dogtail-hedgehog grass, but that all I've been able to ID. Lot's to learn!