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The World Runs on Grass

Francie Von Mertens
A common roadside grass, Little Bluestem stabilizes soil against run-off.

Grass doesn't get a lot of appreciation aside from lawns and hayfields, but grasses play an essential role in ecosystem health. When soil is disturbed by hurricane, fire or logging, grasses take quick advantage of. Dormant seeds awaiting the right conditions sprout and up come the grasses.

Up to 90% of a grass plant is below ground in an extensive root system. These roots spread out and down, stabilizing exposed soil against stormwater runoff and the resulting loss of topsoil. Ken Burns's documentary, The Dust Bowl, brought home the importance of stabilizing topsoil, so we can prevent it from washing down to the nearest water way and reducing the water quality.

Grass Diagram
Credit How Stuff Works

Grasses are resilient for two main reasons. Growth tissue is located at the base of each blade, not the tip, so repeated cutting doesn't kill the plant. And roots store energy and moisture that help grasses survive grazing, fire and drought. Patches of lawn, seemingly killed by a summer heat wave, turn green again when cooler, wetter weather returns. (Full anatomy of the grass plant)

Beyond their ecological role, grasses feed the world—humans and wildlife alike. Members of the large and diverse grass family share certain features: a hollow stem with joints, narrow leaves and inconspicuous flowers. These flowers ripen into grains including wheat, corn, rice and rye; and sweeteners for the cereal grains come from sugarcane, another member of the family.

Eat a hamburger and you're eating grass, most likely the corn variety, but also, perhaps, beef raised on pasture grasses. From ecosystem health to the dinner table, the world runs on grass.

Chris Martin has worked for New Hampshire Audubon for over 31 years as a Conservation Biologist, specializing in birds of prey such as Bald Eagles, Ospreys, and Peregrine Falcons.
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