From Ecological Niches to Grass Baskets: June Forager Level II

From Ecological Niches to Grass Baskets: June Forager Level II


We started our June foragers session visiting the Forager’s Patch to check on the young elderberry cuttings we’d planted. For a moment, it looked like they had vanished. New plants, from poison ivy to creeping Charlie, were living it up in the tidy space we’d cleared for the elderberries. Once we picked them out of the lineup, we could see the elderberry plants were doing just fine, despite their new neighbors and a few deer nibbles.


It was a good segue to a key concept Taylor Roman would introduce today, ecological succession. We’d caused a minor disturbance in this ecological microcosm, and new life was rushing in to seize the opportunity, not unlike new growth after a forest fire. The concept of succession takes the long view, looking at the earth as a stage for a multi-act play, with new characters appearing and building on what came previously: amorphous lichens and mosses appearing on barren, newly formed land after a volcanic explosion, their organic matter eventually giving way to larger life forms and more diverse ecosystems, including fauna feeding on the flora.


The concept lends a different perspective on species like the oft vilified garlic mustard taking hold of the shady understory of North American forests, as Taylor explained. As researchers are discovering, 40 years after setting up camp in certain areas, biodiversity is starting to reappear alongside the plant.


I couldn’t help but to think of the clean sweep development of cities and highways, the ultimate disturbance of habitats around the world. As Taylor would later mention in the context of our lesson on grasses, left undisturbed, pioneering plants and grasses would eventually break open all the asphalt, as you can start to see on a deserted road. It gave me comfort to think of these systemic forces that would find equilibrium and generate life after any cataclysm, natural or manmade.


Niches, Taylor explained, was another conceptual framework to understand the dynamics of biodiversity playing out over time. While we often think of species of both plants and animals as being in competition with one another (and in many instances they do), it’s a better outcome for all if they can create niches within an ecosystem where they can coexist. Taylor gave the example of two species of birds, with one making its home in the canopy and the other on the tree’s trunk, so they don’t waste precious energy competing for space or food. Over time, the process leads to diversity in space and within species.  As research are finding with garlic mustard, and with our little elderberry patch, existing residents of an ecosystem make take a while to adapt to newcomers, but over time will figure out how to coexist.


After chewing on these heady concepts, it was time to turn to a more concrete topic: the botany of grasses. Grasses, though appearing very differently, share all the same anatomy as other flowering plants, just with different nomenclature.


Though your typical grassy suburban lawn is often named as the epitome of a monoculture, over 12,000 species of grasses exist globally, spanning more than a fifth of the earth’s land. The huge grass family contains our most important foods from the dawn of agriculture – rice, wheat and even corn – as well as building materials like bamboo. As Taylor went on to explain, so important are grasses to our diet that humans have developed six copies of the genes that allow us to digest their starches (that’s a secure backup plan!).


Passing around different grass stalks foraged from Fox Haven fields and pointing out their plant parts, we could see things few of us had ever stopped to appreciate: their tiny petal-less flowers with tassels at the top, the layers of leaves coming together to form a central jointed stalk, and their chunky roots, which are a huge store of the earth’s carbon to boot. I had never before stopped to think of grains of rice as edible grass seed, or kernels of corn as grass fruit with corn silk being the pistil of the flower-turned-fruit, but there it was.


Having worked our minds for the day it was time to put our hands to work, using grasses Taylor had collected and cured to learn a simple coil basket technique. We’d watched some videos of Native American tribal peoples demonstrating basketry before our session. The videos highlighted basketry as not only a tradition creating functional objects of beauty and cultural significance, but also a way to weave families and communities together, with the meditative weaving time allowing women to connect and catch up.


After learning the simple steps to process, fold and coil grasses into a simple spiral, we easily lost track of time, focused on the simple repetitive motions and trying to perfect our technique. As with everything we were learning, if nothing else, the act of attempting my own humble basket would make me better appreciate the incredible handiwork of weaving and the materials went into it, as I thought back to my own foraging basket at home.







Written by April Thompson, @prillytee on Instagram

April Thompson is a Washington, DC based writer, gardener, foodie and forager. Working as a freelance writer for more than 20 years, April has covered food, travel, sustainability, gardening, foraging and other subjects for dozens of publications, including her ongoing column in Natural Awakenings magazine. She has taught workshops on wild edible plants, fighting food waste and related topics for Knowledge Commons DC, Rooting DC and other organizations. She is a founding member of the Bruce Monroe Community Garden, a member of the Mycological Association of Washington, and an alum of the UDC Master Gardener program. She currently serves as Director of Marketing and Sales for Bloom, a recycled biosolids fertilizer developed by DC Water.

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