• Brenna Pavan

An Ode to Grasses

Grasslands cover over 30% of dry lands around the globe. On average, grass and lawns cover over 20% of land in urban spaces. Even given how prevalent they are both inside and outside of cities, grasses are still often overlooked as a valuable and diverse group. Grassland soils are dark, deep, and very fertile, and though they may not look as dramatic as a forest ecosystem, they support a great diversity of plant and animal species. Their rich soils combined with few physical obstacles to development often means they are the first ecosystems to be converted for primarily human use. Due to habitat loss from development, Canadian grasslands are some of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. The most recognizable of these Canadian grasslands are the prairies. Stretching from Manitoba to Alberta, the Canadian prairies include long grass, short grass, and mixed grass ecosystems. Central BC also contains significant grassland areas, as well as some areas in Ontario. Even on Vancouver Island we have our own grassland savannah ecosystems, the Garry oak ecosystems. The majority of historical native Canadian grassland habitat has been lost to development, agriculture, and other human uses, however the health of these beautiful and useful ecosystems is not beyond hope.

At first glance, grasslands may not look as impressive as the towering trees of a forest but they are just as important for the health of people and the planet. When left to natural processes grasslands store carbon, retain water, and support thriving communities of above and below ground species. The soil in grasslands is some of the most fertile on the planet, which also makes them prime targets for agricultural development. With this development comes a huge loss of biodiversity, carbon stores, and other beneficial ecosystem services. Traditional lawn grasses unfortunately do very little to mimic the properties of native grasses and their associated ecosystems, and instead often create large swaths of monocultures that are not well adapted to the local climate. Native grasses are diverse and well adapted to many different conditions. On Vancouver Island there are a variety of native grasses adapted to conditions from wide open, sunny, dry meadows, to wetland areas. These native species require far fewer inputs than traditional lawns which require large amounts of water and care, particularly in summer, the driest time of the year. Native grasses also benefit pollinators as they can provide food and shelter for butterflies, bees, and other beneficial insects. The addition of native grass species is a low effort way to have a large impact.

Even having patches of native grasses in yards or public green spaces can help add connectivity between natural ecosystems. In any habitat adding connectivity with native species can increase the health of the native ecosystems, and on Vancouver Island specifically it can benefit the iconic Garry oak ecosystems. Garry oak meadows have lost the majority of their historical distribution to human development, and the areas that are left are often so few and far between that they have become isolated from one another. Continuity between these patches adds genetic diversity for both plant and animal species, greater movement between patches, and creates healthier systems. There are many ways to incorporate native grasses into personal or public green spaces, and with such a diversity of native grasses there are few urban areas where they can’t be incorporated. Even simply replacing traditional lawn species with a diversity of native grasses increases the biodiversity in a space, and can increase the health of the ecosystems around it. Below includes a list of some of the native grass species that can be easily incorporated into urban spaces and can be purchased at local native plant nurseries. For more information on local Garry oak ecosystems check out the Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team (GOERT) website. If you have any questions about how your space could better incorporate native grasses, please contact us and we would be happy to give you some ideas!

Native Grasses of Vancouver Island

Just a sample of the many native grasses that can be used to add biodiversity and beauty to your yard.

Blue Wildrye (Elymus glaucus): does very well in full sun to partial shade, most soil depths, and grows especially well under the shade of a Garry oak tree

Poverty Oatgrass (Danthonia spicata): grows well in full sun and well drained soil, smaller in size than many other native bunchgrasses

Meadow Barley (Hordeum brachyantherum): grows in full sun and wet soil, deer-resitant, and can be found in many coastal shoreline habitats

Columbia Brome (Bromus vulgaris): grows in partial to full shade, tolerates a variety of soils, taller in size than many other native bunchgrasses, likes woodland areas, and is deer resistant

Lemmon's Needle Grass (Achnatherum lemmonii): grows in full sun and well drained soils, does well in shallow, rocky soils, deer resistant, and very drought tolerant

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