Friday, July 27, 2012

No matter how you pronounce it: the zebra that's a grass

Species name: Miscanthus sinensis

Common name: zebra grass

Location: Ontario

I mentioned in a previous blog post about the tufted hair-grass, Deschampsia cespitosa, that there was essentially only a couple other very easily identifiable grasses without the use of a microscope, and this is one of them! Zebra grass is a grass species native to Asia that has the potential to become incredibly invasive in North America. Thankfully, there are many modern cultivars that do not produce viable seed, so this possibility has been reduced. The plant can still reproduce asexually through the use of rhizomes, but this mostly helps to "fill out" a patch, as opposed to spreading underground to a new location. That being said, I have seen some zebra grass in roadside ditches around southwestern Ontario (with the striped foliage, it's hard to miss!), so some has still very clearly (and very successfully) escaped. With a little background knowledge about this plant before you landscape with it, the chances of zebra grass escaping and becoming an invasive species is slim. This is definitely one plant where gardener responsibility is key: if you remove the plant from your back yard make sure you dispose of it properly, and make sure you plant a hybrid cultivar.

Other than ornamental value, it currently has no other uses. It is, however, being examined as a possible candidate for bioenergy (either through fermentation of the leaves to produce ethanol or burning the plants to produce combustion energy) due to the fact that it is extremely fast-growing during the growing season. It would rival sugarcane as an energy source (sugarcane currently accounts for up to 80% of Brazil's energy production annually in some areas, up to 50% of the energy produced for large cities. The Olympics in 2016 will run exclusively on sugarcane!) for temperate areas where it thrives. It also is not as destructive on an ecosystem like corn (so an attractive alternative for corn-based ethanol) and has much higher levels of genetic variation than typical crops so you don't have to worry as much about pathogens wiping out the entire crop in a growing season.

A word of caution about this grass: while it might not seem that way at first, the edges of the grass have saw-like projections which can seriously harm human skin if grabbed the wrong way. I was weeding in the garden and found this out the hard way. If you've got this grass easily accessible to a small child, make sure you put a fence around it until the child is no longer tempted to grab at the attractive leaves. If not, you might end up being the single reason why Band-Aid is still in business!