I’ve haven’t done a Lowveld post for a while. My attention has been held by other things. I’ve been distracted. But don’t worry. I’m coming back with a real humdinger. I hope you’re all ready for a bit of excitement. We’re going to watch grass grow. Yeeeeeehah!
In my quest to cover the ecosystem of the Lowveld, there has been a glaring omission. Grass. There is a very good reason for this. On the international boredom scale, watching grass grow falls just behind watching paint dry. But I can avoid it no more. Because grass is probably the most important element in the system. Oh, well. I promise to keep it short.
Grass is more important to you than you could begin to imagine. You live on it. You eat it every day. Maize is grass. Wheat is grass. Rice is grass. Barley, sorghum and rye are all grass. Like the odd beer? Grass. Whisky? Grass. Steak? Recycled grass. But I’m not going to bore you with a post about those. Today. Today I’m going to bore you with a post about wild grass.
Grass is pretty new stuff. It wasn’t around for most of the time when the dinosaurs walked the earth. When it did arrive, it took over the world. For a very simple reason. It grows from the bottom up. Almost all other plants in the world grow from the top. If you kill the top, they stop growing, or at least have to find another point to start growing from. And the whole world is dedicated to killing the tops of growing things. Frost, fire, drought, wind, animals, small boys with sticks, they’re all lining up to take a shot. It’s a wonder anything but grass grows at all.
This simple little difference gives grass a hugely unfair advantage. If you want to see what I mean, try a little experiment. The next time you trim your lawn, take the mover for a little romp through your azaleas. Cut down one of your trees for good measure. Then leave them all for a week or two before going back to see which one recovered first.
You’d think this would all be great for farmers. If, like most of us, you are not a farmer, you would imagine that looking out over a sea of green, luscious, wild grass swaying gently in the breeze would fill your agricultural cousins with a deep sense of wellbeing. Wrong. It would make them chew their nails. It would keep them awake at night. It would give them ulcers. Because grass is pretty complicated stuff. At least out here it is.
It all has to do with whether or not anything can eat it. There are lots of different types of grass, and only some of them are any good for grazers. Others are only good for some of the time. So if you’re that poor, stressed farmer, you will have a few questions. Are you looking at sweetveld or sourveld? Sweetveld is good, because it is highly palatable (which means grazers like to eat it). But it’s not very productive. Sourveld can be good, because it’s quite productive, but it is only palatable during the growing phase. Are you feeling the excitement yet?
Your next question is going to be whether you are looking at an increaser grass, or a decreaser. Decreasers are tricky, because you then have to work out whether you are looking at a decreaser I, a decreaser II, or a decreaser III. I’m not even going to tell you what those mean, because I’m sure you have better things to do with your time. Unless you’re a farmer, in which case I don’t want to upset you with talk of decreaser III’s.
All you really need to know is that different grasses want different things. Some actually want to be eaten. Those ones make farmers happy. Some don’t want to be eaten, but make farmers happy anyway, because they hold the ground together when it has been overgrazed. Others are just crap.
Once you’ve found yourself a pretty little farm with the right sort of grass, you will need to start thinking about burning it all down. Grass wants to burn. Fire returns minerals to the soil and gets rid of other encroaching plants.
In Africa’s wild places, fire makes people want to fight. Because they aren’t that wild anymore. They’ve been ringed in with fences and filled with artificial waterpoints. You can’t burn them all down at once, because all the animals will die. You can’t burn them at the wrong time of year, because then the grass won’t have time to recover before the dry season sets in. Your fire can’t be too hot, because that will kill the roots. And you can’t burn too many animals, because that upsets all the people who pay to come and see your wild places. But more than anything else, you can’t not burn them at all.
Fire is as much a part of the Lowveld ecosystem as elephants or thorn trees. Without fire, the system spins out of control. Bigger plants take over. The wrong types of grasses start to dominate. And whole species of animals start to disappear.
So why do people fight? Because everybody knows what not to do. But nobody knows what the best thing to do is. Setting fire to one of the world’s great wild places is not something to be undertaken lightly.
Luckily, setting fire to one of the world’s great wild places is not something to be undertaken by me. I just get to drive around and look at things. And I have to be honest. I don’t spend a lot of time looking at grass. But, for the sake of completion, here are some Lowveld grasses. Try to control your excitement- I would hate for you to have a stroke on my account.
This must be the worst one for the farmers. Because it looks so good. It’s lush and green and succulent. And, as you might have gathered from the name, close to useless. It tastes of turpentine. Animals only eat it if they absolutely have to. There are a couple of different species.
Again, the name is a bit of a giveaway. But this grass is a bit more useful. You can make houses out of it. Animals even eat it, early in the growing season, but once it gets dry, the party is over. If you have ever tried to eat a thatched roof, you will understand what I mean. Also a few different species.
This grass hates sheep. And sheep farmers. It spoils the sheep’s fleece, for a start, but also stabs the sheep’s skin and flesh, causing weeping sores. It may look insignificant, but it has led to the collapse of the wool industry in parts of Australia. Which is a shame, because we all know how Australians feel about their sheep.
Bur bristle grass.
Nasty. It travels around by sticking to animals and clothes. It does this so well that it has conquered the world. It is found everywhere in the world that is warm enough. It probably got there on people’s socks.
Tough love grass.
As dull as any other grass, but what a name. You can be damn sure that if it finds out its kids have been smoking dope, it’s gonna open up a can of whoop-ass.
Sticky love grass.
It really is sticky. Perfect for flower arrangements if you’re planning on seducing someone:
“What’s that in the vase over there?”
“Oh, that? That’s just some sticky love grass. Speaking of sticky love……..”
Rough love grass.
I’m just not going there. Children might be reading this.
The big daddy. You find this growing all over the world, but the Lowveld is the best place to see it, because you can hide an elephant in it. Grass is alway more fun to look at when it may just have a four-ton animal in it. It isn’t a bamboo, but may as well be.
There are hundreds of other species of grass in the Lowveld. Tall ones, short ones, smelly ones, medicinal ones, ones that can cut you to shreds like razors, they go on and on. And so could I. But I won’t. If you got this far, I admire your patience. I’m also a little concerned about you. You need a hobby.
Never again will I write about something as dull as grass. It had to be done, but now it is. Next time I’ll be far more entertaining. We’ll be watching some paint dry…..