Watching the grass grow

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!

Try to contain yourselves.

Try to contain yourselves.

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.

Do it! Azaleas respond well to pruning.

Do it! Azaleas respond well to pruning.

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.

I don't think I can cope with this any more. I should have listened to my mother and become a stockbroker.

I don’t think I can cope with this any more. I should have listened to my mother and become a stockbroker.

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.

One of the less well-known aspects of sitting back and watching the grass grow.

One of the less well-known aspects of sitting back and watching the grass grow.

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.

Turpentine grass.



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.

Thatching grass

Just collect another few million of these, and you have a roof.

Just collect another few million of these, and you have a roof.

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.

Spear grass.

It may not look like much, but this is the single greatest threat to the already endangered Cardigan

It may not look like much, but this is the single greatest threat to the already endangered Cardigan

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.

Your socks will never be the same again.

Your socks will never be the same again.

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.

Tough Love Grass spends its first phase of growth in rehab.

Tough Love Grass spends its first phase of growth in rehab.

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.

Nothing to see here.

Nothing to see here. This is a family blog.

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.

Move along please. Pervert.

Move along please. Pervert.

I’m just not going there. Children might be reading this.

Phragmites reed.

At last! Some grass being quite interesting.

At last! Some grass being quite interesting.

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…..

33 thoughts on “Watching the grass grow

  1. Hi there! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new
    apple iphone! Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to
    all your posts! Keep up the excellent work!

  2. Jess says:

    I had no idea that grass could be so interesting.

  3. I will repost this on my blog

  4. Who’d have thought a post on grass would be so interesting. I learned a lot. I laughed at the Tough Love Grass and its can of whoop-ass! 😀 And the sticky grass, and the rough love grass…..

  5. I made all the way through and I have to say, I have hobbies! Good hobbies! Hobbies that don’t involve watching grass grow (although sometimes it does involve where grass grows, but that is not the same thing)
    One of my hobbies is reading your blog, so there.

  6. narf77 says:

    As a horticulturalist, married to a horticulturalist, watching grass grow is not only exciting, but waves dollar signs in our direction ;). Grass growing and lovely tufty seed heads make us both salivate like Pavlov’s dog…sad but true! “Grass Spotting” is a whole lot like “Train Spotting” and has an entire subculture of Khaki wearing afficionado’s crawling around David Attenborough style on the ground dictating into hand held devices about it’s growth habits and how much seed was produced this year. I couldn’t believe that we had to spend an entire unit of study dedicated to grasses, their care and appreciation but as a science, grass is up there with the greats. I have to say that the grass AND the eucalypts will be sprouting after a few weeks of being cut down. We Aussies love to bend the curve ;). I am NEVER going to show this post to my friend Nat, an horticultural lecturer because the second that I do, she is going to add all of this to her horticultural lectures and torture generations of half asleep students! What are you DOING man! I think that most of Africa is Australia’s doppleganger (or, if I am being entirely accurate in my use of the vernacular…”twin” is more appropriate). We go through the very same processes with needing fire and our plants (most probably like yours…methinks I am going to have to start researching African plants as actualities for planting on Serendipity Farm but NO BONESEED! 😉 ) often won’t grow without a quick hot bushfire burn to crack open the pods and stimulate the seed inside and allow the right conditions for that seed to germinate…such technical stuff for what most people just see as “green” isn’t it?
    Animals aren’t fans of bushfires and I am not a fan of the animals that migrate from bushfire prone areas to our garden and strip all of the greenery from our shrubs, trees and anything else that they can get to.
    I like a country that calls it as it is…give things the name that they are useful for! What a good idea? No stupid botanical names to torture the forgetful and a clever associative memory link to always deliver the goods…I love it! We have native kangaroo and wallaby grass (I will let you figure out who eats that) and something called “cooch grass” but that sounds like some sort of invasive venereal disease so I am not going to even touch on what eats that in this esteemed post ;). That spear grass is another one of your imports into Australia that has overstayed it’s welcome. Apparently some seed got mixed up in some fleece or something and suddenly we have African Speargrass alerts and we all have to keep a close eye on the ground for it. I don’t know why people need to keep a close eye on the ground because having been the recipient of one of those namesake “needles” (seeds) I was completely and utterly aware when I stepped in the middle of a clump of these little babies! Could you guys see your way clear to sending us something horticultural that is actually worth it? If your endemic weeds do so well here, goodness only knows how well your beneficial plants would do! I just read that sheep comment and fear that you are mixing us up with the New Zealanders ;). The pavlova, ANZAC biscuit, lamington stealing New Zealanders who take advantage of speargrass affected sheep on their many and regular unrestrained visits to Australia (who let them not need a passport when they want to come here eh?!!!)
    Is that Phragmites what we call pampass grass? THAT IS YOURS TOO?!!! Sigh…
    Cheers for the heads up on who sent us all of our weeds…again we learn that you guys are the culprits…I figure this post was cathartic and you are just offering an olive branch to we poor long suffering recipients of your cast off sock weeds. Any time you feel like taking some of OUR weeds back, feel free…it could be a very good cultural exchange and I am sure that our weeds would just LOVE it over there ;). Steve and I have hopes that one day we might get to see the African grasslands and that we, too could crawl, David Attenborough like, through the grass but as we horticulturalists are not known for our ability to be aware of anything other than the particular piece of greenery right in front of our noses it might be a good thing that we are penniless student hippies because that elephant might just dispatch both of us quicker than any bushfire ;). Cheers for a curiously interesting, non boring post…well SOMEONE had to like it! 😉

    • 23thorns says:

      My father was an indigenous plant fanatic, part of that odd crowd who only use Latin names and identify plants competitively, but even he couldn’t get his head around the grasses. Grasses are for the elite/lunatic fringe (depending on your point of view).
      As for our nasty invaders, I think you hit the mark with that doppelganger thing- some of our worst invaders are bluegums, Port Jackson, and black wattle. Sound familiar? I think we need some sort of staging area between our two countries. Somewhere we can drop off all the nasty stuff to arrive clean and unburdened. Can you think of any large, mostly unused islands in the area?

      • narf77 says:

        “India” comes to mind (if you ignore the incredible amount of humanity that seems to seeth from it’s very pores that is 😉 )… Good idea, lets just find somewhere like India and drop off all of our weeds and then we can visit each other in a very civilised manor minus the circling (like dogs do when they are sizing each other up and working out which bit to bite first…) and it can be very stiff upper lip and old school and even a clap on the back and a “gidday mate” …India it is! Now which one of us is going to deliver this wonderful proposition to the Indian government eh? Methinks you have the most blog followers (you admitted to 30 remember! I sir, am admitting to less! 😉 ) so you draw the short straw 😉 Good luck sunshine…you are going to need it! 😉

    • 23thorns says:

      PS. If you’re planning on crawling through the grass, it’s not the elephants you need to look out for. It’s the ticks.

      • narf77 says:

        Passe old chap…we have ticks here too…bet our ticks are bigger than yours! 😉 Remember, Australia is the go to place for anything poisonous or inclined to consume you in your sleep (aside from Boa Constrictors but I dare say wherever they live will send them here to add to our cultural legend 😉 )

  7. Art Brûlant says:

    Don’t worry some of us don’t find grass boring….then maybe that says something about us!!! Too long watching snow falling?1?! Thanks.

  8. Joel says:

    I made it to the end, but then I’m a trifle mad. You’re hilarious.

  9. Ashana M says:

    The best post about grass I’ve ever read. Of course, I’ve only read one post about grass. But this was definitely the best. Of the one…

  10. Nil says:

    If anyone could make me grin into my tea while reading about grass, it would be you, I guess 😀

    • 23thorns says:

      I don’t know why, but that makes you sound like a perfect Bond villain. Please tell me you were stroking a cat and plotting global domination at the same time.

      • Nil says:

        I was indeed stroking a cat… Now, how did you know that? But global domination? Nah – too much effort!

  11. simonhlilly says:

    Trying to think of a grass-based pun…..I enjoyed the reed.

  12. Kaisa says:

    You know, you can actually see the grass grow. And it doesn’t take that long, half an hour maybe. On a good, warm day. So I’ve been told. Never seen it myself.

    • 23thorns says:

      I have some bamboo (the god-emperor of grass) growing in my garden. When I have half an hour to spare I set up a chair and watch it dig up my expensive paving.

  13. Joanna says:

    You leave me wanting to know more – we had a gardener who was obsessesd with grasses and planted ‘ornnamentals’ all over the place in our garden, we have dug up most of them, but they seed everywhere, efficient plants those grasses. I would love to see an elephant hiding in one though 🙂

    • 23thorns says:

      A year ago I went out into the countryside and dug up a couple of tufts of wild grass to plant in my garden for the seed birds. I fear I may have opened Pandora’s box. One of them turned out to be over nine feet tall.

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