The Flowers We Forgot


In my first days of botanizing, my eyes were glued on flowers. Flowers in the sense of trees, shrubs, twinners, lilies, irises, orchids, etc. These are beautiful, often showy, and definitely attention grabbing.

I was certainly not unique in my bias.

On the naturalist front for example, there are many whose passions seem to revolve around particular group of flowers.

Orchids appear to be one such group. Practically every spring there will be courses or fieldtrips held in appreciation of orchids.

Then also, there is the annually held Springflower Spectacular, ar show in the Hobart Town hall where a smörgåsbord of native banksias, boronias, daisies, heaths, peaflowers, and waratahs  are displayed.

Always this ridiculous obsession with flowers!

But misunderstand me not.

The motive of this writing is not to marginalize flowers, but to exalt them.

In all the time I have been looking at plants I  have yet to find a single flower that does not personify beauty. I am merely believing that an attention only to showiness and colour is myopic.

Admit we must, that most of us have cared little to appreciate a certain group of flowers ― the grasses and their inconspicuously-flowered kin. By these I am referring to sedges (Cyperaceae), rushes (Juncaceae), cord rushes (Restionaceae), bristleworts (Centrolepidaceae), waterribbons (Juncaginaceae) and any others that fit the  the bill.

So while roses, tulips, orchids and lilies are most often the subject of poetic adoration, I have come to absolutely adore the oft-quoted phrase from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars.

The diversity of overall form in grasses and their kin is staggering.

They can grow as turfs or tussocks, as creepers or sprawlers. They can be messy or elegant. They can manifest as towering forms inspiring awe from the tallest of man (eg Cortaderia, Phragmites) or invoke adoration as minute annuals barely reaching a few centimeters (some Isolepis, Juncus etc).

But the true artistic genius of grasses and their kin lie in their flowers.

Grasses and their kin have flowers born in spikes, panicles or racemes, their spikelets displaying a bewildering configuration of shapes, sizes and orientations. When we finally get down to the actual flowers, we find that petals are simply not their style. They prefer the pragmatism of well hung stamens and plumed feathery stigmas that captures the love in the wind. Yet, unadorned as they are, their finesse is extreme, and their strategy hugely successful.

They are found from the edges of the sea to the tops of the mountains, in dryland, wetland, forest and scrub.

Where grasses occur in natural assemblages abundant enough to be the most dominant group of plants, they form grasslands. As an ecosystem, grasslands are richly diverse, supporting a wide range of invertebrates, birds and other plants. Many of Tasmania’s rare plants occur in grasslands. Such is the irony that we make annual pilgrimages to grasslands to look for orchids.

A ramble in a grassland evokes an inexplicable feeling in me. My mind conjures up a time when man has a primal connection with grassy, savanna-like environments. I can sense that the evolutionary journey of man and that of grasses and grass-like plants were always linked in some inextricable way. We eat of their substance. We weave of their resilience. As a whole, few plants groups has had as great an impact on man as grasses and their kin. I’d go as far as to say that the  form of grasses and their kin is etched into our psyche.

My journey has brought me to a point where I am thoroughly smitten with grasses and the like, just as I have become smitten with various other plant groups. I imagine this is the natural and inexorable progression of anyone who is assiduously and incessantly in search of more to appreciate. I know that until I fully expend my capacity to see and know all that I can see and know, my appreciation of this vast plant world can never be complete. And therein lies the joy of botany.