Weed Walk:

Catherine F. Smith

Yesterday, a cool, sunny, breezy Saturday in August, members of the Pennsylvania Native Plant Society came to ChicoryLane Farm for a Grasses, Sedges, and Rushes plant walk led by Sarah Chamberlain of Riparia at Penn State University.

It was another of those perception-changing days on the farm for me, the novice in the group. I shifted from landscape-view to microscopic-view of a whole category of plant life on the farm, grasses (or graminoids, as the botanists say).

It was scale-shifting to go from an everyday relationship with common plants in the wetlands to a botanical view. Everyday either I barely noticed them on my walks around the vernal pools or the cattail marsh, or I might appreciate their colors in the the lush late summer palette of greens and emerging yellows or browns.Yesterday, I experienced the botanical view, identifying and distinguishing among three plant groups according to details of structure, some so small as to be invisible to the human eye. I had some relevant observation skills—I knew to observe growing conditions (eg, wet), growth habit (eg,branching), and large structure (e.g., stem, branches, leaves). But yesterday, using a hand lens I zoomed in to look for small-scale features (eg, bristles, with or without barbs on seeds; wrinkles on stem-enclosing sheathes). When identification was uncertain, the botanists in the group bagged a stalk to take home for later viewing under the microscope. For them, it was a regular day. For me, it was exhilarating.

It was fun, too. We laughed often. I learned new lines for the old mnemonic ‘sedges have edges while rushes are round.’ Add: ‘and grasses have joints when cops aren’t around’ and ‘where cattails are around, willows abound.’ A dry wit in the group contributed this original joke: ‘grasses are depressing; they’re so glumey.’ You have to be a botanist to get that one.

In an earlier visit to the farm, leader Sarah had found the wetlands—vernal pools, farm pond, cattail marsh, wet meadow—most productive, so we focused on those areas in yesterday’s walk. Most of the 30 or so graminoids in ChicoryLane’s wet areas are common in Pennsylvania wetlands, with a few being uncommon in central Pennsylvania where we are. (Source: Sarah Chamberlain and plant lists I have consulted after the walk).

After observing in wetlands on the south side of the lane (under the crack willow, crossing the creek, and around the upper vernal pool), we stopped by the farm pond for more observations, then continued through woods past the wet meadow with soon-to-be-spectacular New York ironweed to the dry grasslands behind the farmhouse. In farming times corn, soybeans, buckwheat grew there. Now, warm-season grasses (timothy, orchard grass) and cool-season grasses (Big and Little Blue Stem, switchgrass, indian grass, side oats grama) have been introduced along with a wildflower mix in a restored Pennsylvania prairie. Voluntary natives have come along, too, some welcome (giant sunflower) and some unwelcome (invasive teasel). In this robust community the uncommon side oats grama is barely noticeable, but it's there. Presently, only a few small clumps of side oats grama compete in a 12-acre field of switchgrass and blue stem grass. Side oats grama is a destination plant, one you purposely visit, rather than a vista plant such as switchgrass or bluestem grass populating the field's horizon.

After this fine walk in glorious weather, several in the group assembled on the porch at the Mt. Nittany Inn for supper. For non-local (Pittsburgh, Altoona, State College) members of the group, there was another scale shift, as they scanned the panoramic view of Penns Valley seen from the Inn’s porch, looking for ChicoryLane Farm between Brush Mountain and Egg Hill.

At day’s end, John and I sat on the knoll behind the farmhouse to watch sunset and anything else happening in the scene.  In an hour of watching the sun go below Brush Mountain and the cloud colors change from white to pink, while hearing a neighbor’s beagle bark and bobwhite call, these sights were notable:

To paraphrase Elam Beiler, it was another beautiful day in central Pennsylvania.

Next day, John added the 30+ newly identified graminoids to the 5+ already on the plant list on the farm’s searchable database. I looked in Herrick, Iroquois Medical Botany, for Native American medicinal uses of grasses, sedges, and rushes.

August, 2013