Saturday, February 18, 2023

A Taxonomist's Conundrum (Or, A Poem on How I Lost My Hair Identifying ^$%^#^%!!! Grasses)

Thanks to Paul Marcum of the Facebook group "Midwest Graminoids - Grasses, Sedges, and Rushes, Oh my!" 

The Identification of Grasses

by H.D. Harrington

A grass can be “glumey” in more ways than one,

When its classification remains to be done;

You pull off the parts, and soon feel your age

Chasing them over the microscope stage!

You peer through the lenses at all of the bracts

And hope your decisions agree with the facts;

While your oculist chortles with avid delight

As you strain both your eyes in the dim table light.

You are left on the horns of quite a dilemma,

When you count the nerves on the back of the lemma;

Then you really get snoopy and turn each one turtle,

To see if the flower is sterile or fertile.

And then the compression, no problem is meaner —

Is it flat like your wallet or round like a wiener?

“How simple,” you think, “for a mind that is keen” —

But what do you do when it’s half-way between?

You probe and you guess how the florets will shatter,

For you know later on it is certain to matter;

You long for the calmness of labor that’s manual,

When the question arises — “perennial” or “annual”?

And that terrible texture, the meanest of all,

Is one of the pitfalls in which you can fall;

“Cartilaginous” maybe — or is it “chartaceous”?

Has even the experts exclaiming “Good gracious!”

Then you wail as you wade through the long tribal key,

“Oh, why must this awful thing happen to me?”

“Grasses are easy,” our teacher declares,

As he mops off a brow that is crowned with gray hairs!

(B) is the bent awn of the fertile floret that is being hidden between the enclosing glumes, and (A) is the rudimentary spikelet which sits on a pedicel. The axis segment that connected the unit to the next spikelet pair is labeled (C), and you can see at the top where it was detached from the raceme.


  1. Harrington nailed it! One of these days I'll post my Carex poem ("glory perigynia")

    1. I didn't know you were a "sedgehead" ;-) Are you in that FB group? Paul Marcum is the host, and he is one, along with many others.

    2. I'm an aspiring sedgehead! I've id'd sedges for years, and always thought they're not as "bad" as people say. But now I'm working on a guide to South Dakota sedges—lots to learn. I will definitely check out the FB group. Thanks!

    3. What's the name of the group Paul Marcum hosts? I searched for sedgeheads but got only Minnesota Sedge Heads. It might be useful ... not far from SD.

    4. Here you go, enjoy!

      Midwest Graminoids - Grasses, Sedges, and Rushes, Oh my!

  2. Great post as usual- reminds me of why I failed to excel at that course at uni!