NPS Photo - Cookie Ballou
The grasses comprise the most widely distributed family of flowering plants, and the largest in terms of numbers of individuals. They are found in almost all habitats and on all continents, including Antarctica. The family appears to have originated near the beginning of the Tertiary geologic era, perhaps in association with the rise of grazing animals. The generative response of grasses to fires ignited by plains tribes contributed to the vast extent of the prairie ecosystem with its unsurpassed soils and 60 million bison. Minute flowers of grasses are wind pollinated, highly specialized in structure, and thus possess a descriptive terminology all their own.
Of all plants on earth, grasses and their seeds are of the greatest use to the human race. Nine of the ten most economically important plants are grasses. Civilization as we know it would not exist without them. To the grasses belong the cereals, including wheat, corn (maize), rice, barley, rye, and oats. It has been justifiably stated that wheat, com, and rice are the crops that feed the world; rice is a staple food for more of the world's peoples than any other plant. Also of tremendous significance are sugarcane, sorghum, millet and bamboos (the largest of the grasses, regularly attaining a height of over 100 feet).
Because they furnish the bulk of the forage and feed of grazing animals, grasses are also the basis of the animal industry. Throughout centuries, grasses have not only nourished us, but have served as or provided us with construction supplies and art materials, fiber, clothing, paper, utensils, wax, oils, boats, floats, conduits, and even corncob pipes, fishing rods, and walking canes. They hold soils in place and provide wildlife with food and habitat.
Did You Know?
The long narrow leaves of the desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) gives it its common name, but it is not a true willow. It is beautiful when in bloom, and provides valuable nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, bees and other insects.