Saturday, December 31, 2022

A Whole New World: Using a Portable Digital Microscope

At first glance, the image above looks like a picture of some unusual tropical fruits. But the fruit-like structures are actually spikelets of a Paspalum grass species (Paspalum laeve perhaps?), with diameters of just 2 mm! 

The spikelets are of course normally borne on flowerheads that rise up from the surrounding leaf blades, as shown in the image below.

The macro lens on my camera can certainly do better than our naked eye, showing the individual spikelets in nice detail, as in the in situ images below. At this level, one can clearly see the stigma and anthers coming out of the enclosing glume.

In situ pics of flowerhead of Paspalum sp using camera and macro lens

But for really close work I got a relatively inexpensive portable Jiussion Portable USB Microscope.

I have not tried it on the field with my cellphone (I can only imagine the nightmare of trying to focus and stabilize the contraption out in the field), but I have used it with my laptop at home, and the results are quite good. 

Fuzzy stigma peering out from the enclosing glume of the spikelets of Paspalum sp

After downloading the necessary Windows application and drivers, and connecting the microscope via USB to the laptop, I was able to easily take pics. 

The pictures are not as good as using the macro lens of course, but the magnification is much greater. My only complaint would be that the stand is somewhat flimsy and trying to focus and stabilize the entire contraption is a bit of a work.

Nevertheless, the device will allow me to view the spikelet parts in much greater detail, which will help in identification and usher in a new world of hidden wonders.

The microscope is available on Amazon for those who are interested.

Spikelets of Imperata cylindrica. Notice the long white hairs rising from the base which help in its spread.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Who needs large petals and sepals? Eragrostis superba

(c) Riaan Lizamore

Grasses do not have large showy flowers like many other flowering plants because they are wind-pollinated. You can read more about wind pollination, and why grasses embraced a life without animal pollinators here.

The specialized reproductive structures that they do have can be exquisitely beautiful, but this beauty can sometimes only be fully appreciated with the help of macro lenses.  

I have a particular fondness for grass inflorescence that have purple or reddish hues, but the absolutely gorgeous pink and light green colors of the spikelets in this Eragrostis superba floored me when I first saw it. In the image, the orangey-pink anthers are held on whitish filaments, with white fuzzy stigmas poking out from between them. The green-striped structures that enclose them are specialized spikelet bracts. For a primer on grass structures, click here.

The species is native to Africa, but also occurs in other disparate locations, such as California and Hawaii. It lives in sandy soils in open woodlands or sparse grassland up to about 1,500 m in altitude. It can also occur as a pioneer in disturbed areas. Some common names for this plant include "Weeluisgras", "Sawtooth love grass" and "Wilmann love grass".

After seeing specimens like this, I am starting to really like this genus of grasses.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Common Names: So long, and thanks for all the fish!

Ornamental variety of Imperata cylindrica (aka. kugon, cogon, alang-alang, spear grass, blady grass...ughhhhh!!!!!)

I noticed I completely ignored using common names in the last few posts I have made (especially the botanizing ones), and I find it does not bother me at all.

Maybe I'm just too lazy (yes!), but hunting around for the common names when posting about multiple species during a botanizing trip is just too much work. Plus, some common species have literally a crowd of common names, and it just gets too unwieldy to keep posting them when the scientific names are exact (well, at least until those nefarious taxonomists get into a sadistic mood).

When introducing or focusing on individual species I will likely post the various common names, but I'll probably skip on them from now on in most posts, and da*n the search bots.

I figure if you care enough about something, you learn its proper name. 

Btw, that beautiful (very rare) purple flowerhead of the ornamental variety of I. cylindrica is one reason why I like that species, notwithstanding it is considered one of the top 10 weeds in the world ;-)

Monday, December 12, 2022

A Fantastic Botanical Caribbean Cruise Trip

Dactyloctenium aegyptium in foreground and our cruise ship in background (in Costa Maya)

We went on our first cruise in 3 years since the pandemic. Our ship landed in 4 destinations, and I spent some time botanizing close to shore. 

The locations varied in terms of the ease of botanizing and the diversity of species found.

Melinis repens in Costa Maya


The first island is wholly owned by Royal Caribbean, and it is a tiny piece of land that is immaculately kept as clean as an urban park.

Most of the specimens I found were ornamental grasses that were deliberately planted, including Trypsacum dactyloides and the fountain grass Cenchrus setaceus (?) .

Trypsacum dactyloides, with male flowers (orangey anthers and filament showing) on the left and female flowers (purple stigma showing) on the right

However,  scattered along the undergrowth I found smaller specimens, such as an Axonopus sp and a single specimen that looks like a tiny Eragrostis or  Poa sp. These tiny weedy species still thrived despite the wholly artificial nature of the location.


I walked along the Avenida Rafael E. Melgar, the coastal road that leads from the International Cruise Terminal to the downtown proper of San Miguel de Cozumel. It was a pleasant 5 km walk along a well maintained sidewalk, and I descended at times onto the beach proper, which was mostly rocky and small.

Along the way I encountered not only the usual weedy species that seemed to proliferate in all urban locations, but lawn turf grasses and the occasional coastal inhabitants like Paspalum vaginatum. This species had rigid looking leaves and robust stolons, which it used to crawl along the rocky and sandy beaches.

Paspalum vaginatum (inset inflorescence)

I also came upon a few specimens that looked remarkably like Andropogon spp on first look.

Andropogon sp (?)

Many of the larger areas had specimens of Megathyrsis maximus, which managed to rake in some sun along the edges of wooded lots next to the sidewalks.

Megathyrsus maximus spikelets (inset inflorescence), with purple stigmas and yellow-orange anthers

Quite a few areas had the turf grass Cynodon dactylus, which also showed up as escaped specimens in cracked sidewalks and parking lots.

Cynodon dactylum, with white anthers and purple stigmas

Amazingly, I also came upon many more specimens of the same tiny putative Eragrostis or  Poa sp that I had encountered once in Cococay. In one case, it had swamped the original inhabitants of a stone container along the sidewalk!

Unknown Eragrostis sp/Poa sp (?)

But by far the most exciting find I made was a species that I at first was disinclined to think was a grass. It had an inflorescence that looked nothing like the usual spikelets, but I later typed it as Paspalum fimbriatum.

Paspalum fimbriatum

The spikelets of this species had glumes and lemma that formed a fringe around the florets. Its  leaves are relatively broad,  with a slight sinuous quality in some. 

Other specimens that I encountered in Cozumel were:

Melinis repens

Dactyloctenium aegyptium

Dichanthium sp

Cenchrus spinifex (?)

Andropogon sp (?)

Sporobolus jacquemontii (which I also encounter a lot in Florida)

Eragrostis sp (?)

Eustachys sp

Eragrostis sp (?) in Cozumel, Mexico


This stop was the least attractive in terms of surroundings.  Our ship docked in the center of the city Coxen Hole, and it was raining sporadically the entire time.

I walked east along Main St. after disembarking from the ship, although in hindsight I probably should have gone the opposite direction. 

The empty lots were filled with Megathyrsus maximus, while sprouting from the cracks in the sidewalks and other marginal places I found the usual "weedy" species, including Eustachys sp, Digitaria sp, Echinochloa crus-galli, Eleucine indica, and a single Cenchrus sandbur sp.

I returned to the ship after enduring the sporadic rains for perhaps a couple of hours, with the hope that the next landfall would yield better returns. 

Eustachys sp growing on the rocky beach at the pier 


I was not disappointed, because the stop at the Puerto Costa Maya near the town of Mahahual was the most fruitful of all.

The port itself was clean and large, with the usual tourist shops. But it was the surrounding area that made the area a prime spot for botanizing grasses.

The streets were wide and clean, with resorts and large private homes interspersed with empty lots. Closer to the Port, the wide street (Avenida P del Puerto) did not have sidewalks along the sides, but it instead had a very wide island that was filled with trees and plants. Amazingly enough, a dirt path run through the center of the island, so pedestrians using this "sidewalk" seemed to be in some forest path! It was a rather innovative idea, and one that I had never encountered before.

Path between stands of vegetation in the street island of(Avenida P del Puerto)! A great concept for urban and suburban roads

It goes without saying that I felt safe wandering into the smaller side streets, and just a few blocks from the port I came upon an empty lot that was filled with all sorts of species. 

Field of Botanizing Dreams. Eustachys sp and Dichantium sp in foreground, pinkish Melinis repens in background.

It was a literal field of botanizing delights, with waving masses of Eustachys sp mingling with clusters of pink and red Melinis repens

Melinis repens

Other inhabitants included the ubiquitous Dactylocnium aegyptium, Dichantium sp, as well as Cenchrus sp and an unknown species that was probably a Paspalum. There was even a large Megathyrsus maximus to one side.

Eustachys sp (left) and Dichantium sp (right)

Beyond the field I continued in the general direction of Mahuhual Beach, and I continued to encounter interesting specimens.

Once in awhile I came upon individual plants that I typed as Andropogon (perhaps A. virginicus because of a sheath that partly covers the spikelets) , which surprised me, as I always associated that clade with North America, and not tropical regions.

Andropogon sp (?), habit and spikelets

I also found an attractive broad leaved grass that I identified as Paspalum mandiocanum. The leaves had minute dark sinuous curves along their edges, and I found specimens along the sides of one of the main thoroughfares (Carretera A Mahahual).

Paspalum mandiocanum

Even the crabgrasses caught my attention. One specimen had a beautiful sinuously striped rachis and ciliated spikelets, and I typed it as Digitaria ciliaris.

Digitaria ciliaris

I also encountered specimens that I could not type, including a tallish and elegantly slim grass that had alternating green and white appearance to its culms (due to the leaf sheaths staying close to the culm). I typed it to perhaps Hyparrhenia rufa.

Unknown species (Hyparrhenia rufa?)

All in all, it was a great day for botanizing, and a great end to my December Caribbean Cruising trip!

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Bamboo, Bamboo Look-Alikes, and a 'Miracle' Grass at the Harry P. Leu Botanical Garden

Bambusa vulgaris 'Vittata' (Striped Timber Bamboo)

Bamboos form the subfamily Bambusoideae, and there is no doubt that they are some of the most beautiful grasses around. Their colorful culms, delicate leaves, and the majestic heights reached by some bamboo species, make them a favorite of many plant collectors and  growers, and their economic importance as structural materials is second to none in the Poaceae. In addition, bamboos hold a special place in the cultures of many East Asian countries.

Bambusa malingensis (?) dwarfs passersby

I visited the Harry P. Leu Botanical Garden in Orlando, FL and spent some time marveling over these plants, but also discovered a few other new grasses that I had never encountered before.

As always, the bamboos were probably one of the highlights for many of the people visiting the garden.  People were especially enthralled by the larger specimens, which towered over them and rose to reach the heights of the surrounding trees. Unfortunately, even though there were signs that urged people not to do so, I saw instances of culms with the initials of visitors carved into them. 

Bambusa vulgaris

There is a common misconception that the bamboos are the most "primitive" of the grasses (probably due to the fact some are woody), but recent studies show that the Bambusoideae diverged after the rice subfamily (Oryzoideae), and much later than the three earliest grass subfamilies (Anomochlooideae, Pharoideae, and Puelioideae). More on grass phylogeny in some future post, I promise.

Although many of the specimens I found were varieties of Bambusa vulgaris (Timber Bamboo), there were quite a few other species that caught my eye. 

A medium sized bamboo (Dendrocalamus minor 'Amoenus') that had a bluish tint to its culms entranced me.

Dendrocalamus minor 'Amoenus'

I was also interested in a smallish bamboo with the funny name of Pseudosasa japonica 'Tsutsumiana' that was hidden among its towering brethren. Its form and attractive foliage made me think it would make a nice houseplant, if only it stopped growing at a manageable height! But the highlight of my trip turned out to be some of the non-Bamboo grasses.

Pseudosasa japonica 'Tsutsumiana'

A few of the species that were also in the bamboo section of the park looked remarkably like small bamboo, but were in fact not in the subfamily Bambusoideae at all! 

Thysanolaena latifolia

Thysanolaena latifolia (called Tiger Grass in some places, and Broom Grass in others) had elegant broad leaves, and I thought at first it was another bamboo. The specimen I found in the shade sported dried flowerheads that looked like brooms, and in their native habitat they are in fact used for sweeping.

Thysanolaena latifolia seedheads

Another grass that really caught my attention was a small cutie that only reached to my calf called Pogonatherum paniceum. It looked like a bamboo as well, and it had gorgeous striped leaves and an attractive roundish habit. It is used as an ornamental in some places, and I have a feeling I might get one for my garden someday.

Pogonatherum paniceum

One other specimen that held my attention showed up near the end of my visit. The day was coming to a close, and I was hurrying towards the exit when I came upon an entire section that was dedicated to ornamental, and other, grasses.

In addition to the usual ornamental grass suspects like Miscanthus spp, as well as economically important species like Saccharum officinarum (Sugarcane), the lot had a species that I had been hearing about a lot in my sojourns on facebook, but which I had never seen in person.

Chrysopogon zizanioides (Vetiver grass) habit

Chrysopogon zizanioides, which is also called Vetiver grass, is a species which has its own groups in Facebook, and its many economic benefits has been been touted loudly and repeatedly by its many boosters around the world.

Chrysopogon zizanioides (Vetiver grass) seedheads

C. zizanioides is considered part of a low cost technology solution that has helped to solve various problems. It has a massive root system that grows vertically and deep into the soil, which makes it ideal for erosion control. These same roots also spread and slow down runoff so it passes harmlessly across farmland, and the ability of the grass to tolerate very high levels of heavy metals makes it ideal for soil remediation. It is also used for pest control in that it is attractive to many insect pests (e.g. stem borer moths), which lay their eggs on the plants instead of nearby crops. The larvae who feast on C. zizanioides die due to chemicals in the grass that interfere with their digestive system.

It really is  a so-called 'Miracle' Grass to the many people around the world who have used it! 

Here are some of the species that I discovered and mapped by GPS in the Harry P. Leu Botanical Gardens:


Bambusa dissimulator
Bambusa eutuldoides 'Viridivittata'
Bambusa malingensis
Bambusa multiplex
Bambusa multiplex 'Golden Goddess'
Bambusa oldhamii
Bambusa textilis var gracilis
Bambusa vulgaris
Bambusa vulgaris 'Vittata' 
Dendrocalamus asper
Dendrocalamus minor 'Amoenus'
Otatea fimbriata
Pseudosasa japonica 'Tsutsumiana'

In addition to the bamboos, I was happy to find some Other Grasses:

Arundo formosana
Chrysopogon zizanioides
Miscanthus spp
Pogonatherum paniceum
Thysanolaena latifolia
Saccharum officinarum
Trypsacum spp

...and a few more that I had no time to survey due to the park closing.

For visitors to the park later, I created a google map of the specimens that I found. You can find it here:

Monday, November 21, 2022

Letting Your Lawn Grasses Flower

Stenotaphrum secundatum (St. Augustine Grass) flowerhead with orange anthers and purple stigmas

Notwithstanding the growing complaints about lawns, a lawn of turf grass has some aesthetic  qualities. Lawns are clean looking to some people, and they project a sense of ordered structure that a mélange of different plants squeezed together might not.

Paspalum notatum (Bahiagrass) with purple anthers and stigmas

But aside from a few weedy species like Poa annua that thwart the mower's blades by flowering close to the ground, the various turf grass species are kept from showing their full reproductive selves by the regular mowing that homeowners do. This incessant desire to keep the lawn grasses short prevents the grasses from pushing up flowerheads and scattering pollen and seeds to the winds, while making it difficult for homeowners to identify the grass from just their vegetative structures.

Zoysia matrella with tiny spikelike flowerheads

Most turf grasses have relatively tiny inflorescences, a consequence of the fact grasses are wind-pollinated and have no need to expend energy on unneeded colorful petals and sepals. In addition, turf grasses are usually species which have evolved to be grazed, so they eschew tall stalks and flowerheads and keep close to the ground. 

But it is still fascinating to see the usually colorful stigmas and anthers via some magnification, and by setting aside parts of the lawn as temporary no-mower areas, owners can finally see the turf grasses flower, as well as type them more accurately to species.

Eremochloa ophiuroides (centipede grass) with silvery stigmas and purple anthers

So take some time to see what the flowers of your own lawn looks like. Make at least some part of your lawn no-mow until the tiny flowerheads and seedheads rise up to scatter your lawn's grass seeds to the wind.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Stepping into Prairie Grasses: An Introduction & Primer

Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem) inflorescence

The Missouri Prairie Foundation was kind enough to invite me to write an article introducing people to the prairie grasses. I am not an expert, but I spent some time making diagrams of grass structure and macrophotographs of  some of the major tallgrass prairie species.

You can read it here (a PDF file, starting on page 14). Enjoy!


Saturday, November 5, 2022

The Armored Spikelets of Sandburs and Sandspurs (and how one became a part of me)

Burs/Spikelets of Cenchrus echinatus

One of my favorite group of grasses are the so-called sandburs or sandspurs.

These are species in the genus Cenchrus, and they sport spikelets ensconced in armored, thorned burs. There are usually several spikelets nestled within the shell.

A single inflorescence of C. echinatus 

I find the resulting structures (which are sometimes vividly colored) attractive in a dark and deadly way; botanical weaponry that is achingly beautiful in its form and function.

But the main function of the burs is actually more mundane, as they are principally used to disperse the seeds of the plant via animal hosts. The thorns frequently catch onto the skin or clothing of some passing host, and the entire bur is then carried far away from its original location. There have also been studies that show the bur floats and aids in dispersal via water.

Less mature burs/spikelets of C.echinatus

I encountered sandburs in NJ, and also in the Philippines. In both cases, the species was not in abundance in the area, but the small stature of the grass (and its annual nature) might cause one to underestimate their prevalence.

I finally came upon a sandbur species here in Florida while walking between homes that were under construction. The plants were in a sunny location in what would be the front lawn in the completed home.

I typed it as Cenchrus echinatus (which is called Southern Sandbur in some places here), based on the globular, pubescent bur, which has upper (inner) spines fused at the lower part and a ring of bristlelike lower (outer spines) near the base.

In my eagerness to take photographs of the cluster I accidentally brushed against one of the seedheads and a bur stuck to my right middle finger. I absently brushed it off, and was annoyed to discover the spine had broken off and was still lodged in my skin. 

When I got home and my wife and I tried to remove it, we found out that the spine had penetrated deeper than we thought, and it was impossible to dig it out without creating a deeper wound. When I visited a doctor later, she could not make it out (and I did not feel it when she applied pressure on the area), so she decided to leave it in and said that the small piece would be pushed out by my body as it repaired the wound.

And so now, not only am I made mostly from grass because of the food that I eat, but I probably have weaponry from a grass forever lodged under my skin. I truly am becoming an Orang Poaceae!

Monday, October 31, 2022

Mass Flowering of Native C4 Grasses in a Florida Savanna

Andropogon ternarius (syn. Andropogon cabanisii)

Update: Thanks to an unknown commentator and the infernal never ending work of taxonomists, the following corrections are added - the Andropogon ternarius depicted is synonymously termed Andropogon cabanisii, while the Andropogon glomeratus here is Andropogon tenuispatheus, which is synonymous with Andropogon glomeratus var. pumilus. 

Update 2: Added comments and pics of Saccharum giganteum.

The passing of the seasons can be seen in the regular changes in the grasses that make up a landscape. Even here in subtropical Florida, the coming of Fall heralds the flowering of many of the C4 grasses that dominate the longleaf pine savannas that are a marvelous (but threatened) fixture of the natural environment. 

Andropogon glomeratus (syn. Andropogon tenuispatheus)

I visit the Nature Conservancy's Disney Preserve in Kissimmee fairly regularly, and during my visit this late October, the surroundings were suddenly aglow with the sudden flowering of several C4 grasses. 

If you remember from earlier posts, C4 grasses have a specialized carbon-concentrating photosynthetic mechanism that allows them to be more efficient in hot and arid conditions, and they tend to grow fastest and flower during the latter parts of the season. 

Andropogon ternarius (syn. Andropogon cabanisii)

Whereas before, the preserve was a somewhat monotonous landscape of Serenoa repens (saw palmetto) and various smaller grasses like Aristida beyrichiana, with longleaf pines interspersed at almost regular intervals, now the area was dominated by the visually arresting inflorescence of different Andropogon spp. and a few other C4 grasses.,

Sorghastrum secundum

I admittedly am still learning how to identify the many Andropogon spp, but there were a few species that stood out enough that even I was able to identify them. Among the most beautiful was Andropogon ternarius (locally called Splitbeard Bluestem in this area, syn Andropogon cabanisii). Each inflorescence contained a pair of silvery racemes that formed a distinct V, with the awned spikelets giving it a beautiful feathery appearance.

Sorghastrum secundum

Some other Andropogon spp that were in flower included A. glomeratus (Bushy Bluestem, syn Andropogon tenuispatheus), A. virginicus (Broomsedge), and others that I cannot yet identify to species. 

Sorghastrum secundum flowerheads rise up from the understory

An interesting new grass that I found was Sorghastrum secundum, which is related of course to the more well known Sorghastrum nutans (locally called Indiangrass). Unlike S. nutans, the spikelets in S. secundum are all located to one side of the raceme, and this gave rise to one of the local names for it, Lopsided Indiangrass.

Sorghastrum secundum with mostly detached spikelets

But perhaps the most beautiful species that graced the preserve during my visits was Muhlenbergia sericea. This grass is also known as Muhlenbergia capillaris var filipes, and known locally as Gulf Muhly and Sweetgrass.

Muhlenbergia sericea (capillaris)

The purplish inflorescence waved easily in the breeze, and looked almost ethereal when seen in front of the sun's bright rays. M. sericea and its relatives are used often as ornamental grasses here in the peninsula, although I noticed that there is a hit and miss quality when it comes to the lavishness of its flowering in cultivation.

Muhlenbergia sericea (capillaris) line the hiking trail

People were not the only ones appreciative of this species. I also saw a juvenile alligator hiding in the shade of one of the M. sericea specimens (see image below).

An alligator under Muhlenbergia sericea

Perhaps most remarkable of all were vast fields of Saccharum giganteum (locally called Sugarcane Plumegrass), which lay behind rows of Andropogon glomeratus that lined the road leading in and out of the preserve.

Andropogon grasses were in abundance at the preserve (forefront). The tall grasses behind it in the far distance were Saccharum giganteum.

I could not identify them at first due to the distance, but after an unknown commentator mentioned the name, I later came back and waded into the field and took pics.

Saccharum giganteum

The culms and sheaths were quite hairy, and so too were the flowerheads. Macroshots revealed that the spikelets had a ring of long white hairs rising from the base, and straight awns that nailed the ID as S. giganteum.

Saccharum giganteum flowerhead. Inside pic shows expansion of the inflorescence against an aroid backdrop.
Saccharum giganteum spikelet showing long callus hairs and awn.

In the end, there were quite a few species that were in flower that I could not identify at the time. This was especially true for the Andropogon spp, which I am still learning about. Nevertheless, I'll be sure to drop by again soon to continue my exploration of this beautiful grassland, and perhaps someday I'll be able to name all the various species I encounter.