Poaceae: A Family Portrait


Poaceae: A Family Portrait
  • Posted April 16, 2015

The grass family covers much more than our lawns. Wheat, rice, corn, oats and many other grains are in the Poaceae clan; they form the bulk of the human diet and are the plants that allowed our species to transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to become agriculturalists (roughly 10,000 years ago), the defining fork in the road for humanity on which our cities and technological advances rest.

The seeds of grasses are a principal source of carbohydrates in the human diet, but another grass is responsible for making those carbs even more appealing to the human palate – sugarcane. Growing from head high up to nearly 20 feet tall on 65 million acres across the tropical latitudes of the world, it is by far the world's largest crop by weight. The grass family grains of corn, rice and wheat are numbers two, three and four respectively, with production totals for each equivalent to roughly 50 percent of the nearly 2 billion tons of sugar cane produced annually.


With their phenomenal growth rate and carbohydrate-rich biomass, grasses and their associated landscapes — prairies, savannas, pampas and steppes, which cover about one-third of the Earth's surface — are a major source of photosynthetic energy powering the biosphere. They form 70 percent of the human diet directly and are primary forage for the livestock whose, milk, eggs and meat we consume. More and more, we are powering our vehicles with grass, as well. Ethanol made from sugar cane has been a significant fuel source in Brazil for decades and corn-based ethanol production is rising dramatically in the United States.

But beyond their utility in agriculture, industry and on playing fields, grasses have a light airy beauty in the context of aesthetically designed landscapes. Bamboo is the king of grasses, exemplifying the characteristically gentle sway of the Poaceae clan, while colorful cousins, such as blue fescue, purple fountain grass and pink muhly offer a full palette of textures and color choice for landscape design.

Golden Bamboo Blue FescuePurple Fountain GrassPink Muhly

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Brian Barth
About the Author

After 15 years as a professional landscape designer and horticulturalist, Brian Barth embarked on a second career to share his passion—and the knowledge he's accrued—through writing. His love of plants is all-encompassing, but he has a particular soft spot for culinary crops.


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Poaceae: A Family Portrait