Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 12, 2007

A Mist of Witch

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:08 pm

 Whenever there is more than one of anything, that cluster is given a special name.  Take, for instance, a flock of birds or a peck of apples.  Some groupings, such as a pod of whales or a gaggle of geese, are standard parts of the English language but any reference to a murder of crows or a rabble of caterpillars, are rightly left between the pages of the dictionary.  How anyone could classify a group of caterpillars as a rabble is beyond me.  Can you imagine a surly gang of larvae ripping up the local bar?  I think not.

  Most things of small notice are left without official group names or are destined to share names with greater things. I feel that this leaves us free to declare that there can be a falsehood of pseudo scorpions or a school of trout lilies.  A lexicon of word police will not come to unplug our computers or a herd of mouses will not descend upon or homes in the form of a plague. With this in mind, I propose that a multiple grouping of Old Witch Grass should be called a “Mist” of Witch from now on.

  I admit it -I had to resort to trickery to keep you hanging on long enough to get to the point where we are talking about grass.  Grasses are not high on our interest list. Given the choice of “Caterpillar Rabble Gangs of New York” or “Witch Grass in Our Daily Life” as television menu items, I’m pretty sure the caterpillars would win out.  The same result would occur if I offered that choice here in print, so before you go please take a moment to look at this grass photo (ignore the goldenrod blooms in the foreground).

   Don’t you agree that a bed of witch grass looks like purple morning mist? The hazy presentation comes from the collective appearance of the branching seed heads.  Each seed head is called an inflorescence or a panicle. The individual plants are spindly looking (see here or at this official type picture here), but as a group – a “Mist” – they offer us some autumn color. Since the purple patches are easy to spot, you can appreciate this grass from behind the wheel of your car as you buzz down the highway, but consider stopping in for a closer look if you get the chance. This particular grass is called Common Witchgrass, Old Witch Grass, or Panicum capillare.

  The “panicum” part of the scientific name refers to the panicum, or millet like, seed inflorescence which takes up the entire upper half of the plant.  Eventually this branching top portion breaks off and rolls across the landscape like a tumbleweed – sowing a crop of seeds as it goes. A glance at this other picture will reveal the very hairy appearance of the leaves and the reason for the “capillare” name which means “hair-like.”

  Aside from our visual benefit, witch grass serves as food for small birds and a rabble of skipper butterfly caterpillars.  The birds eat the tiny, but numerous, seeds and the gangster ‘pillars eat the green growing leaves. 

  I’d like to spend more time with some details of this grass’s life, but I understand that I have probably pushed you beyond your limits of grass tolerance. The limits of my camera restrict the amount of detail that I can share with you anyway, so I’ll leave you with this stunning photomicrograph of a cross section of a Panicum grass leaf taken by someone else.  If nothing else it confirms that there is beauty in both the overall view and in the incredibly detailed view of this humble grass.  Here is a thing of beauty to a hungry Skipper larva. Here is a mere collection of cells that form a grouping called Witch Grass.

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