Your front lawn has global roots

What's short and green and grows all over? Before you say "grass," let's get a little more specific. There's more than one type of grass growing in most lawns, and, to the dismay of homeowners, there are plenty of weeds as well. But what you may not know is that most of what makes up a typical American lawn comes from all over the world. Your lawn is filled with transplants that originate from as far away as Africa and Japan.

Some of the first modern-day grasses were planted by early American colonists to feed their cattle and sheep. These grazing animals had quickly eaten up varieties native to the New World, so colonists had to import European grasses and clover. These could withstand the heavy grazing needs of the animals because they were richer in nutrients. And unlike native North American grasses such as broomstraw and rye, the European varieties are perennials, which means they could grow back each year.

By the 1640s, settlers could purchase European grass and clover seeds in New England markets. One such variety we know as Kentucky bluegrass. But it isn't from Kentucky. It grew in the Middle East and in Europe, and came over with early settlers. Because this grass flourished in parts of the United States, people assumed it had originated here.

Another type called Bermuda grass may have arrived in cattle feed brought in 1539 by Spanish explorer Fernando de Soto. It also arrived on African slave ships, where it was used as bedding and animal feed. By the 19th century, it had become a pasture grass. It also was used to help stop soil erosion.

When settlers migrated farther West, they again turned to native grasses, like buffalo grass, to feed their herds. But even those were eaten up too quickly, and settlers planted European varieties again. (Buffalo grass still grows in prairies alongside other mixes. Interestingly, it's becoming more popular for lawns in dry areas because it requires less water.)

By the late 18th century, wealthy landowners in the US were trying to imitate English estates, which had large groomed lawns. Most American homes were still built close to the street, an English style that included packed dirt or a garden in front. But by the mid-19th century, front lawns caught on among the middle and upper classes in America.

In 1915, the US Department of Agriculture and the US Golf Association researched the best lawn grasses that would endure the different climates in America. After 15 years, they developed mixes that contained bluegrass, Bermuda grass, fescues, and bent grass. Today, these mixes are more common in the north because they can withstand both cold and hot temperatures.

Plant stowaways

Along with rich, emerald grasses, early colonists also brought a modern-day nuisance - weeds. The seeds of weeds traveled in their hay-stuffed mattresses, were carried on the bottoms of their shoes, and mixed in with their grasses. We call a plant a weed when it spreads rapidly, is growing out of place, or interferes with a local ecosystem.

At first, some weeds were not seen as a nuisance. Some were brought to America as food or decoration.

Plantain (not to be confused with the bananalike fruit) was one such weed. It had been eaten in Japan and China as a leafy vegetable. The name "plantain" comes from the Latin word plantage. The root, planta, refers to the sole of the foot. This plant's 3- to 6-in. leaves resemble feet as they cluster on the ground. Birds, wind, and boots spread the plants quickly across fields. The native Americans called it "white man's foot" because it seemed to go wherever the white man went. Now it's a common lawn weed.

Another common weed is the dandelion. Its name comes from the French dent de lion, or "tooth of the lion," because of its sharply indented leaves. The plant came to the US from Europe. Like the plantain, the dandelion spread quickly after its arrival in the 1600s. Today some people put dandelion leaves in their salads. The Russian dandelion provides a milky juice (latex) that is used to make rubber.

Clover was brought to the US from Ireland, England, Scotland, and other areas in Europe as food for grazing animals. Some forms of clover also were used to feed people. The flower and seed heads of the white clover were dried and used to make bread during famines in Ireland. It is still used in salad sometimes.

Another type of weed was probably brought to the US as a decorative plant. It's called knotweed and is originally from Japan. Knotweed was introduced to Britain in 1825. Shortly thereafter, it was brought to the US. It grows up to 9 feet high and has tiny greenish-white flowers that form clusters along the stem. It spreads quickly and forms dense thickets that can alter local ecosystems.

A weed called leafy spurge also arrived in America as decoration. It has smooth stems and yellow flowers. It first came to the Northeast in 1829 and had spread to Oregon by 1904. Leafy spurge can grow 2 to 3-1/2 feet tall. Today it is estimated that it grows in more than 3 million acres of land across 29 states.

A grass that quacks?

A weed with a funny name, quackgrass, has been in the US since the early to mid-1600s. The name quackgrass may be a variation of "quickgrass," because it grows so quickly and can shoot up to 3 feet high. Chickweed got its humorous name because its seeds were used to feed birds. It's also known as Starweed because of its tiny star-shaped flowers. Its tops can be boiled and eaten or put in salad.

Many of us work hard to keep these plants out of our yards. Maybe our weekends would be a lot easier if we all just decided to grow lawns made of weeds?

SOURCES: 'The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession,' by Virginia Scott Jenkins; 'Lawns and Ground Covers,' by James Underwood Crockett and editors of Time-Life Books; 'Weeds: A Golden Guide,' by Alexander C. Martin; 'Green Side Up,' by Wes R. Porter.


Back then, your pets could mow the yard

If you think pushing a lawn mower around the yard is hard work, consider the people who had lawns before mowers were invented. Sometimes they used shears or a scythe (a tool with a long handle and a long, curved blade) to keep their lawns trimmed. You used to have to be rich to maintain a lawn. Land owners often let animals graze on the grass to keep it short.

Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson used sheep to keep their lawns cropped. President Woodrow Wilson actually kept sheep on the front lawn of the White House. He wasn't just trying to keep the lawn short, though. He was president during World War I, and the nation was experiencing a wool shortage. Not only that, but men were also needed to enlist in the Army. The sheep on the White House lawn helped make the point that people should keep sheep to help with the wool shortage. And with sheep taking care of the lawn, White House gardeners could join the Army.

When the White House sheep were sheared, the wool was auctioned off. The auction raised $100,000 for the American Red Cross.

The first patent for a mechanical lawn mower was granted in 1830 to British engineer Edwin Beard Budding. It was designed after a cutting tool used to trim carpet. The first US patent for a reel-type lawn mower was awarded in 1868 to Amariah Hills. Before that, early lawn mowers were drawn by horses. Some of these horses wore large leather boots to keep them from damaging the lawn.

Today you may not get to ride a horse around your front yard, but you can be grateful to have a power mower and the cool, soft grass under your feet.

Our love of lawns

Foreigners visiting the United States are often surprised to see patches of grass in front of every house. Even in England, grass is usually grown in back as part of the garden. Their small front yards are planted with flowers and mosses. Many visitors are also amazed at the effort we put into cultivating our "artificial meadows." To most Americans, however, what started out as a way to feed sheep has turned into an art form and a symbol of prosperity. Some fun facts about this great American tradition:

• Americans spend more than $17 billion a year maintaining their yards.

• The annual cost per acre of maintaining a lawn: $327. The cost per acre to maintain a golf course: $2,000.

• The top 6-inch layer of 1,000 square feet of soil contains up to 40 million weed seeds. That's more than 5,000 seeds per square foot.

• The number of grass plants in a 1,000-square-foot lawn: 850,000.

SOURCE: National Gardening Association

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