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Summer 2011

Urban Jungle

The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark      

July 26, 2011

Summer’s wild oats, winter’s warm mush

Throughout the summer, the flattened green flower spikelets of wood oats dangle from gracefully arching peduncles.

As autumn approaches, the spikelets — bearing ripening seeds — turn blond, then bronze, and finally fade
to gray in the winter. Their durability and pleasing form make them a favorite with flower arrangers, who sometimes refer to the plant as spangle grass or wild oats.

Also known as river oats, the plant has salt-, shade- and drought-tolerant qualities that are praised by landscape designers and by land managers who use the grass to halt erosion or stabilize sand.

Scientists are eyeing the tough traits of the grass to possibly exploit them for modern agricultural purposes, but use of the plant for food stretches back for centuries. The Cocopa tribe from the Southwest stored the meager seeds for use in winter, grinding and cooking them for porridge.

SOURCES: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University of Texas, University of Michigan

Wood oats, or wild oats, river oats, inland sea oats; Chasmanthium latifolium