by Andrea Williams, Vegetation Ecologist
This is installment 10 of a 12-part series on grasses. Read the previous installment here.
I thought it fitting to write about vanilla grass (Hierochloe occidentalis
= “sacred” chloe
= “grass”) during the holidays, but it no longer exists. Now it’s lumped into Anthoxanthum
= “flower” xanthum = “yellow”). We have traded a sacred grass during the holy days for yellow flowers and vacations. Not that I mind a little time off, but sometimes change is hard, even if it is for good reason.
| Anthoxanthum odoratum
The new Jepson Manual is not so new; eventually we botanists will just call it the Second Edition. But even though it came out three years ago (!), some of the name changes still rankle. The loss of Hierochloe
as a genus name is one of those. This sweet-smelling grass has been used by tribes as incense, and has a history of being scattered in churches for its fragrance. But, I suppose, a grass by any other name smells as sweet?
Vanilla grass smells much like sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum
), its new genus-mate. There the resemblance ends. Vanilla grass grows in broad-leaved clumps, its open-branched inflorescence of oval spikelets pearly above emerald. Sweet vernal grass seems green only briefly, single flowering stalks sharp, dense, straw-colored spikes. Even the taxonomists acknowledge the oddity: The genus description
includes the following disclaimer: “As treated here, the genus including Hierochloe
, which is readily distinguishable in North America, but not in Asia and southern hemisphere.”
We have both vanilla grass and sweet vernal grass on Mt. Tam; the best stands of vanilla grass are at the western end of Kent Lake and the eastern end of Phoenix, although it can be found in many forested areas throughout the watershed. Vanilla grass is one of the first plants to bloom, often flowering in January. Sweet vernal grass, an invasive non-native, is limited to Sky Oaks Meadow at present.
Taxonomy today includes more and more genetic work, instead of relying on appearances and visual distinctions. While the new arrangements reveal a deeper knowledge of lineages and relationships between different kinds of plants, a feeling that someone reordered the world persists. Our relation with things is so reliant on language, and the name is part of our conception of it. The idea that knowing the “true name” of a thing gives you power over it goes back ages in human history. Part of me thinks of molecular taxonomy (grouping by DNA-based relationships) as an almost mystical pursuit, a laborious study to reveal the true nature of things. And even though Arthur C. Clarke postulated that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” it still makes me cranky.