Book Review: Name Those Grasses; Identifying Grasses, Sedges and Rushes

Grasses are notoriously difficult to identify, ask any botanist. Having evolved along the same basic physical plan and superficially resembling one another, grasses must be identified by studying tiny structures that cannot be observed without magnification. By default, this has traditionally been left to experts, who still have difficulty separating species. Because of the exactitude involved, written descriptions in botanical atlases and floras are written by and for experts. Most laypeople turn away in bewilderment, wishing that some interpretive guide existed that could help to decipher the code.

And now one does! Ian Clarke’s book, Name Those Grasses; Identifying Grasses, Sedges, and Rushes helps those without specialized knowledge use identification manuals and botanical keys and clarifies the identification of grasses and grass-like plants. Stuffed with practical information, the book is designed, written, and profusely illustrated with ink/scraperboard drawings and color photographs by Clarke. He knows his topic well, having worked in the botanical field for more than 40 years, first for the University of Melbourne School of Botany and later for the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria’s identification and information services. He has a longtime interest in botanical illustration and has served on the selection panel for many botanical art exhibitions.

Clarke’s passion for his topic shines through as he generously and patiently explains botanical nomenclature, structures, and processes through text and illustration. He seems to have a genuine interest in increasing the reader’s knowledge and understanding. The book is incredibly well thought-through, using a logical order to lead the reader through ever-increasingly specific topics. Clarke’s clear, direct writing style is well-matched by his excellent drawings, which are both precise and attractive.

Polypogon monspeliensis (Annual Beardgrass)Because grass species look so much alike and share so many structural qualities, identification is often made by examining the reproductive parts, which are more unique to species. This is where the book begins, with an illustrated overview and comparison of the reproductive structures of several commonly encountered plants with the ‘less conventional’ flowers of grasses, sedges, and rushes. This reviewer, having no formal botanical training, had several “a-ha moments” as a cloud of dimly recognized botanical terms were suddenly snapped into focus by Clarke’s text and diagrammatic drawings. From reproductive structures, the book moves on to discuss other attributes that separate grasses from other plants. Everything pertaining to grasses is covered: growth habits, how processes work and why they exist, and evolutionary adaptations. Human historical context is also given, honoring the important role that grasses play as cereal grains.

A section on scientific classification follows, with a useful introduction to the main groups of grasses and lengthy hierarchical descriptions of important subfamilies and tribes. Tribal characteristics are meticulously described and compared in the text, and illustrated with equal precision in the drawings. Exceptional photographs round out the section. Coverage of sedges, rushes, restios (found in the southern hemisphere), and bulrushes follows, using the same format. At the book’s heart is a detailed explanation of the process of identification; how to examine live specimens and ways in which to skillfully employ key systems. This information is very practical and could be used to identify all types of plants, not just grasses.

> Inflorescence of Polypogon monspeliensis (Annual Beardgrass). Very widespread annual in temperate regions often found in brackish situations. © Ian Clarke, 2015

The illustrations are accurate and attractive. Using technical pens on scraperboard, the author/illustrator achieves a clean, consistent style that is rigorous in its communication of complicated topics while remaining artful in its execution. The qualities of the media are used to their fullest extent, employing a wide range of value to capture fine details such as hairs and stomatic patterns. The drawings follow classic botanical illustration conventions, including cutaways and cross-sectional views, while maintaining a certain contemporary liveliness. The author’s gorgeous photos skillfully provide additional detail, color, and richness.

My first assumption in picking up the book was that it was a field guide to Australian species. I was delighted to find that it is so much more than that. Its purpose is to aid in navigating the complicated topic of regional botanical atlases, information that is international in its scope. I highly recommend it to students, educators, agricultural/horticultural professionals, naturalists, artists – anyone who is studying botany of any kind, most particularly, the tangled topic of grasses.

Name Those Grasses; Identifying Grasses, Sedges, and Rushes (544 pp)
by Ian Clarke, Royal Botanic Gardens
Victoria: Melbourne, Australia, 2015
ISBN 0980407648, 9780980407648

You can order the book here:

Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, Australia
Andrew Isles Natural history Books, Australia
Natural History Book Store, UK

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