The Pathway down to the Riverbank (Grasses, Sedges & Rushes)

Growing up, I lived beside a river and I have many happy memories of seeking out crayfish, building rock dams and wandering along riverbank paths.  I find myself still, decades later, seeking out pathways down to the water and appreciating natural stream and river shorelines.  When I was younger, I was aware of the variety of flora but truly it was just a backdrop of green that changed colours every once in awhile as certain flowers bloomed or as the seasons change.

According to the MNR there are over 3,400 plant species listed on the Natural Heritage Information Centre website for the province of Ontario.  This includes trees, shrubs, herbaceous and fern species, both native and naturalized.  That's a lot of green!

Since my first efforts five years ago at flora and fauna identification as an amateur field naturalist, I've been charmed by the unique world of flora and their amazing characteristics, traits and ecological links to the fauna that depends on them.  There are just so many interesting facts and tips!  I had no idea that some plants close their blooms nightly and "go to bed" or that others can be linked so closely to the sun's rays that you could predict time with them!  Or that due to the different depths of the corolla of flower blooms there are only specific insects that can drink the nectar depending on the length of their tongues.  But I digress...

Photo Credit: Viliam Glazduri (InstagramFlickr500 pxContributing Creative to Wild. Here.

Down along the river's edge, I started learning about various wetland plants and floating and submergant flora.  In school they shared with us a small mnemonic poem that was helpful in identifying the three types of grass-like (graminoid) flora.  I had no idea that these three types even existed!  I had always lumped them together.  All of these species can be found in various environments from dry fields to wet marshes - so identifying the habitat won't help narrow things down.  With the poem, it makes it rather easy to hone in on specific characteristics of the grass-like plants so that they can be separated into the correct Family.

“Sedges have edges; rushes are round; 
grasses are hollow with nodes from the ground”.* 

Images above of grass species (left) and sedge species (right) found in the same Nature Reserve. 
Sedges (Cyperaceae Family) with their triangular stems, have leaves arranged in three also.  I find their seed heads to be interesting, sometimes upright, other times hanging down.  Many Carex sp. (known as a true sedge) can be found in Ontario. 
Rushes (Juncaceae Family) with their round, smooth stems, will have leaves attached only at the bottom of the stem.  The most familiar rush, the Flowering Rush (Butomus umbellatus) in Ontario is not a true rush.  It is not the same Family or Order of the three graminoids. 
Grasses (Poaceae Family) with their round, bumpy stems, have two leaves that can sheath the stem.  Their stems are hollow except for the nodes (bumps) that section the stem.  Their spiked florets are a very inconspicuous flower - grasses are much more known for their seeds.  

So the next time you walk down to the waterfront you will have an opportunity to look around to see if you can spot more than one type of "grass".  Take a note of the flower or seed head and identify the leaf pattern.  Try twirling the stem between your fingers to feel for the edges (of a sedge) and/or run your hand down the stem to see if you can notice any nodes.  Watch out as some grasses have a sharp leaf blade (perhaps you've noticed this before when you've been out by the water?).  Enjoy your time exploring the differences between flora species and enjoy this new way to see certain plants.

And tell me what's your favourite part of nature - is it a specific species or is it a grouping of animate or inanimate aspects?  Maybe it's not a thing but an activity or vista?  What get's you jazzed about getting outdoors?

*There are a few versions of this poem - here's a link to more about this poem here.

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