Don’t Forget About the Grasses

Grasses are flowering plants, after all, so why not consider them wildflowers? This is the inflorescence of Elymus hystrix, which translates roughly to “covered porcupine”. The common name is eastern bottlebrush grass. It ranges from the eastern Great Plains and northern parts of the South through the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, New England, and into Canada. Look for it in woodlands and woodland edges: unlike many grasses bottlebrush likes some shade.



And with that, I’m off for two weeks, heading for a high latitude destination. If I find wildflowers I’ll post some pictures. Landscapes, too.  In the meantime, here’s a shot of my beloved Potomac River near Glen Echo, taken a few days ago in the early morning.




The last plant (woolly willow) in my last post got me to thinking about other woolly Icelandic things. Like sheep, and grass.

Sheep are everywhere. On-line travel guides will warn of common road hazards, like sudden changes from asphalt to gravel, or one-lane bridges, or fords (not Fords), but they don’t always mention this common cause of sudden braking:

Sheep are as common in Iceland as functional fences aren’t. Mostly bred for meat, this breed of sheep’s double coat yields two different types of wool, which are spun together to form lopi, from which the traditional sweaters (lopapeysa) are knitted. These sweaters are itchy but incredibly warm. After two trips to Iceland I own more of them than I care to admit.

Note how bright the sky is in that photo. It was around 9:30 pm when I shot it, and it’s an accurate exposure.


As for grasses, there are a lot of grass and sedge species in Iceland, but this one is really eye-catching. It’s Eriophorum angustifolium, common cottongrass (Icelandic klófífa). It’s actually a sedge. (Some day I will write about the difference between sedges and grasses.) I saw another cottongrass, E. scheuchzeri, but never got any good pictures of it. Both are very common in wetlands all over Iceland.

Northern Sea Oats

aka inland sea oats, Indian woodoats, wild oats, and many more

Chasmanthium latifolium; Poaceae (grass family)


I may have to retire “Flower of the Day”, as there are fewer species of flowers in bloom now.  But plants in fruit and seed can be lovely, too.


Northern sea oats is widespread in the open areas and not-too-deep woods of the Potomac gorge.  The plant grows to about 5 feet tall, with arching stems and drooping spikelets.


To my amazement and dismay, I went this whole season without getting a decent picture of it in bloom, though it blooms from May through August.

Its native range extends from Arizona to Pennsylvania, and in the midwest somewhat further north to Michigan, where it’s listed as threatened.  The plant is only distantly related to the edible common oats (Avena sativa).  Once again I’m going to rant a little about the uselessness of common names.  This is a southern, inland species of grass that isn’t an oat, so how did it get the moniker “northern sea oats”?!

Woodoats makes a lovely garden plant, though it can be aggressive.  Grasses don’t get the respect they deserve from home gardeners.  If you’re interested in the subject look up Rick Darke’s The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses, (Timber Press, 1999) once known as the authoritative guide.  While looking up that link I learned that he’s since published another one, even more comprehensive.  Uh oh, looks like I’m heading to the bookstore soon.