Useful Grasses in Britain

Two common grasses in a local meadow: Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus) and Sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum)

The family of Poaceae (number 177, or  the last family in Stace’s  and most other modern Floras) has 5 Sub-families and 16 tribes.

It is by far the largest family in the temperate world as grasses flourish in nearly every habitat!

Stace does mention many obvious non-natives which have naturalized in several places, as well as crop plants which have been grown in the B.I. for many centuries.

Many people find grasses hard to identify and this is mostly due because of their small parts, which often need  be looked at through magnifying glasses and of course they are mainly all green!

However with a bit of practise and knowledge into which diagnostics to look for, they are not too difficult. It can get adictive as the flowers are often beautiful!

I use colour coding for easy reading! Blue background is general interesting info (although I hope you find it all interesting!!). Green is about all the uses except for medicinal uses or if there is a warning in which case I use a pink background. Amber coloured background is for all the cereal grasses this time. Pictures by Matt Summers and Mike Poulton unless stated.

Here a gallery of pictures by Mike Poulton of various grasses from different habitats.

For the main text see page 2.

To help you with identification, there is a good website with pictures you can find here:

But a good flora is useful and I still like my old flora of grasses by C.E. Hubbard, which was first published in 1954. I’ve got a third edition reprinted in 1985.

Several grasses have changed names though and to find the correct name we have to refer to Stace or a specialised flora such as ‘Grasses of the British Isles’. Wikipedia should also list the correct names as well as its synonyms (= former names).

The Poacea could be mistaken with sedges and rushes which are related as they are in the same order of Poales, but whereas the grasses have hollow stems, the sedges and rushes have solid stems. For more info see here

Here below you’ll find several links to  floras  about grasses, sedges and rushes:

or there are also attractive fold-out card of grasses:

“Covering 30 species, this new fold-out chart should enable everyone to put a name to some of the most common species of grass found in Britain and Ireland. A special feature of this chart is a simple-to-use lateral key to enable users to make the quick identification quickly.

This chart is part of the FSC’s range of fold-out charts, designed to help users identify a wide range of plants and animals. Each chart is laminated to make it shower-proof and robust for use outdoors. Clear colour illustrations and text by experts in the subject make these valuable resources for all age groups”.

Apart from the fact that grasses are really beautiful and many can be grown as an ornamental plant in your borders, they are also useful in other ways, although not so many as you might expect for this large family.

A small selection of native grasses which are ornamental enough for your garden are:

Avena fatua (Oat Grass), Brachypodium sylvaticum, Briza (Quaking-Grass), Bromus spp.,  Calamagrostis spp., Deschampsia spp., Melica spp. (Melick), Molinia caerulea (Purple Moor Grass), Phalaris arundinacea and especially the Gardener’s Garters,  Phragmitis australis or Common Reed, Sesleria spp., and many more.

Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus) with Buttercups behind creates an attractive picture.

En masse, mixed with native wild-flowers, most grasses are very attractive when in flower. Each habitat has its own particular dominant grass in combination with the native flowers. Many more people should experiment with leaving their lawn uncut, instead of going for boring, high-maintenance, short-cut lawns! It also won’t need any extra watering and feeding then, yet  another advantage. Combinations with our different varieties of clovers are always attractive and good for insects.

There is one problem to leave grasses to flower, which is when you suffer from hayfever! Read more about this on this website.

Some grasses are more troublesome than others: Perennial Ryegrass, Timothy Grass, Cocksfoot (= Orchard) Grass), Bermuda Grass (introduced and not common as yet) and Common Meadow-grass (= Kentucky Blue Grass) are mentioned in that website but probably many more will be troublesome!

How to make a standard lawn more attractive!

In one of my earlier posts we talked about weeds in lawns.

The main grass used in standard, hard-wearing turf however is Perennial Rye-Grass. The flowers is not very ornamental, but in lawns they tend to be cut off anyway!

In lawns, various seed-mixes are used and many grasses are attractive if you allow them to flower (and not suffering from hay fever)! Grasses such as the Meadow-grasses, Timothy & Crested Dog’s-tail.  This could slowly be improved adding (or allowing!) ‘weeds’ which suit the locality. The turf for bowling greens and other short-cut purposes has more attractive grasses with the delicate flowers of the Fescues and Bents.

Wildlife Uses:

Grasses are larval food plants for a large number of butterfly and moth species.

  •   Some species like skippers and ringlets prefer tall coarser grass species, others like
  • gatekeepers, meadow browns and marbled whites prefer fine grasses such as bents and fescues. 
  • Other food plants worth noting are birdsfoot trefoil for common blue, garlic mustard for orange tip and green-veined white, and common sorrel for small copper.  All these species are easily provided as common components of meadow seed mixtures, or hedgerow/woodland mixtures in the case of garlic mustard. 

Various Grasses and their uses:

With our limited digestive systems we can’t really use the green parts as food.   We can of course eat the grains of our domesticated grasses but the wild grasses are too fiddly to clean.

  • In our temperate regions it is the fact that they can grow in many habitats and therefore form the main food for our herbivores.
  • They can protect the land from erosion especially on high ground where most of our trees have vanished over centuries, to make way for  sheep and people.

Phragmites australis (Common Reed)

Common Reed (Phragmites australis) (by Picasa-Wikipedia)

Phragmites is a grass I grew up with in my native Waterland in the Netherlands.

Ecological and Wildlife Uses:

The plant has a very vigorous and running rootstock, it is useful for binding the soil along the sides of streams etc.

It is planted for flood control since it stablizes the banks and gradually builds up soil depth, thus raising the level of the bank.

A proper Reed bed (Picture by Mike Poulton)

Common reed is very important (together with other reed-like plants) for wildlife and conservation, particularly in Europe and Asia, where several species of birds are strongly tied to large Phragmites stands. The habitats for reeds in these regions is wetlands and meadows. These include:

Edible Uses:

  • The young shoots can be consumed raw or cooked.
  • The hardened sap from damaged stems can be eaten fresh or toasted.
  • The stems can be dried, ground, sifted, hydrated, and toasted like marshmallows.
  • The seeds can be crushed, mixed with berries and water, and cooked to make a gruel.
  • The roots can be prepared similar to those of bulrushes (Typha latifolia)

Medicinal Uses:

  • the ash of the leaves is applied to foul sores
  • A decoction of the flowers is used in the treatment of cholera and food poisoning
  • The leaves are used in the treatment of bronchitis and cholera
  • The ashes are styptic
  • The stem is antidote, antiemetic, antipyretic and refrigerant

It is taken internally in the treatment of diarrhoea, fevers, vomiting, coughs with thick dark phlegm, lung abscesses, urinary tract infections and food poisoning (especially from sea foods)

Externally, it is mixed with gypsum and used to treat halitosis and toothache

The root is harvested in the autumn and juiced or dried for use in decoctions

Other Uses:

The common reed has many usescan provide a large quantity of biomass and this is used in a wide variety of ways as listed below. Annual yields of 40 – 63 tonnes per hectare have been reported.

  • The plant is also converted into alcohol (for use as a fuel), is burnt as a fuel and is made into fertilizer. The plant is rich in pentosans and may be used for the production of furfural
  • The reed can be used also for the preparation of absolute alcohol, feed yeast and lactic acid.
  • The stems are useful in the production of homogeneous boards.
  • They can also be processed into a fine fibrous material suitable as a filler in upholstery
  • They are used for thatching roofs, which can last for 100 years.
  • The stems and leaves are also used for building dwellings, lattices, fences, arrows by Indians, and for weaving mats, carrying nets, basket making, insulation, fuel, as a cork substitute etc.
  • The stem contains over 50 percent cellulose and is useful in the manufacture of pulps for rayon and paper
  • The fibre from the leaves and stems is used for making paper and string.
  • The flowering stalks yield a fibre suitable for rope making.
  • The leaves are used in basket making and for weaving mats etc.
  • A light green dye is obtained from the flowers.
  • Freshly cut shoots are a good green manure
  • The inflorescences are used as brooms
  • The plant is mixed with mud to make a plaster for walls
  • Pens for writing on parchment were cut and fashioned from the thin stems of this reed
Flowers of Lolium multiflorum (Picture by Mike Poulton)

Perennial Rye Grass (Lolium perenne) and Italian Rye Grass (Lolium multiflorum)

  • Perennial Rye Grass (Lolium perenne) and Italian Rye Grass (Lolium multiflorum) are cultivated grasses used for forage.
  • Perennial Rye Grass is the main species used for our lawns as it is particularly hard-wearing. Therefor it is also used on playing fields for sports such as football and rugby.

Anthoxanthum odoratum (Sweet Vernal Grass)

Anthoxantum odoratum has a particularly strong scent when dried, and this is due to coumarin, a glycoside, and benzoic acid – it smells like fresh hay with a hint of vanilla. The seed head is bright yellow in color. It prefers sandy loam and acidic conditions (a low pH). As an agricultural grass it has a low yield, but can grow on land too acidic for other grasses.

I always loved the scent of the Sweet Vernal Grass. An interesting article about the use of scented grasses in Norway, especially the genera Anthoxanthum and Hierochloe can be found here.


  • A tea is made from the fresh or dried leaves. Has a sweet, pleasant fragrance.
  • The aromatic leaves and dried flowers are used as a strewing herb
  • they are woven into baskets
  • used in pot-pourri

Caution: When used internally, especially from dried plants, it can act to prevent the blood from co-aggulating.

Medicinal Uses:

 Action: Sedative. Anodyne and anti-inflammatory. Improves peripheral circulation (external use).                                    

 Uses: Insomnia, especially when coincident with physical and mental exhaustion. Painful joints, muscle pain & stiffness, chilblains (as baths or compresses). It is said that a tincture made from this grass with spirit of wine is an effective and immediate cure for hay fever.

Detailed drawing from Hierochloe odorata from my book ‘Grasses’ by C.E. Hubbard

Hierochloe odorata (Sweet or Holy Grass)

The name Hierochloe odorata is from the Greek and Latin. Hierochloe means “holy grass” and odorata means “fragrant”. Much rarer than the Sweet Vernal Grass and can only be found in the northern parts of the B.I.


  • The plant is harvested by cutting grass in early to late summer at the desired length. Basketweavers sun-dry cut sweet grass until it is dry and brittle. The brittle form of sweet grass must be soaked in warm water until it becomes pliable. The pliable grass is typically braided into thick threads and then redried for use.
  • Holy grass was strewn before church doors on saints’ days in northern Europe, presumably because of the sweet smell that arose when it was trodden on.
  • It was used in France to flavor candy, tobacco, soft drinks, and perfumes.
  • In Russia, it was used to flavor tea. It is still used in flavored vodka, the most notable example being Polish Żubrówka.
  • It is a sacred grass of the indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States. It is used as a smudge, in herbal medicine and in the production of distilled beverages (e.g., ŻubrówkaWisent). It owes its distinctive sweet scent to the presence of coumarin.

There are only a handful of native grasses which are medicinal according to Julian Barker in The Medicinal Flora of Britain and Northwestern Europe, 2001, he mentiones the following:

Part of an illustration of Lolium temulentum (from Wikipedia)

Darnel (Lolium temulentum)

Action: an analgesic (= herb for relief of mild pain) as well as a hypnotic (= herbs that relieve anxiety and induce normal sleep without unpleasant after-effects).      

Internal uses: powdered dried grains were used for headache, arthritic pain and sciatica. This remedy is probably not used any longer.                                                         

External uses: A lotion made from a decoction (= a medicinal preparation made from a plant) was used for

  • sciatic pain,
  • a poultice for ulcers and sores and
  • the powdered grains are a suitable base as a drawing ointment.
The notorious rhizomes of Elymus repens!

Couch Grass or Twitch (Elymus repens)

Wildlife Uses:

The foliage is an important forage grass for many grazing mammals. The seeds are eaten by several species of grassland birds, particularly buntings and finches. The caterpillars of some Lepidoptera use it as a foodplant, e.g. the Essex skipper (Thymelicus lineola).

Medicinal Uses:

Action: Diuretic & Demulcent

Uses: Cystitis, urethritis, prostatitis, benign prostatic hypertrophy. Adjunct to the treatment of renal calculi or kidney stones.

In Hedgerow Medicine it is rated highly for all those conditions mentioned above.

Recipe Couch Grass tea: Use 2 heaped teasoonfuls of dried rhizome per mug of boiling water, and let steep for 10 minutes. Strain and drink, three times a day.

The rhizomes have been used in the traditional Austrian medicine against fever, internally as a tea, syrup, or cold maceration in water, or externally applied as a crude drug.    

Other Uses:

The dried rhizomes of couch grass were broken up and used as incense in medieval northern Europe where other resin-based types of incense were unavailable.

Uses from various grasses in the world:

  • Other grasses provide roof thatching, walls and floor matting as well as writing paper.
  • Appropriate species of grass are ideal for stabilizing sand dunes and embankments. (Marram Grass (Ammophila arenaria and Leymus  being the main examples.
  • Then there is turf for all manner of sports, including contented sitting, and the ‘amenity’ crops on which sitting is forbidden!
  • Necklace beads and brush bristles also come from types of grass, as do clarinet reeds and edible bamboo-shoots.
  • Bamboos have some place in amenity horticulture in these latitudes and also provide the gardener with canes.
  • Cane sugar, from Saccharum officinarum has for long been a cash crop, to the severe detriment of the land producing it and those who cut it and to the health of those whose sweet tooth has been catered for so lavishly.
  • With so much emphasis on the supply of starch, sugar and fibre from grasses, their evaluation for other compounds has been somewhat overshadowed.
  • Alkaloids are found in the family, as are saponins, phenolic acids and, especially in tropical forage grasses, lethal amounts of cyanogenetic glycosides.
  • Oestrogens are found in some of the temperate species. For all the diversity of the family, the herbalist is left with the following handful of plants. Nonetheless, Couch Grass and Corn Silk are certainly ones that it would be very difficult to go without.
  • Floating Sweet grass or Manna Grass (Glyceria fluitans) is an useful herbage in water meadows. Larger species provide cover for water fowl “.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Cultivated Grains:

Illustration showing the various wheat types (from The Illustrated Book of Food Plants)

Wheat or Triticum

This is mainly used as a food.

Flour, cooked or soaked can be used as a medium for poultices; wheatgerm oil with its high levels of vitamin E is useful in certain skin disorders and is a valuable healing vehicle for essential oils in Aromatherapy.

There is a good deal of negative advice concerning wheat. Intolerance is by no means uncommon, especially in the presence of fermenting agents. For more about this see here.

Illustration showing the differences between Rye, Oat and Barley (from The Illustrated Book of Food Plants)

Rye or Secale

Rye grain is used for flour, bread, beer, crispbread, some whiskeys, some vodkas, and animal fodder. It can also be eaten whole, either as boiled rye berries or by being rolled, similar to rolled oats.

Rye contains less gluten than wheat but nonetheless is still not suitable for sufferers from coeliac disease.

Barley or Hordeum

Like wheatrye, and their hybrids and derivatives, barley contains gluten, which makes it an unsuitable grain for consumption by people with gluten-related disorders, such as celiac diseasenon-celiac gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy sufferers, among others. Nevertheless, some wheat allergy patients can tolerate barley or rye.

Oats or Avena

Oat protein is nearly equivalent in quality to soy protein, which World Health Organization research has shown to be equal to meat, milk and egg protein. The protein content of the hull-less oat kernel (groat) ranges from 12 to 24%, the highest among cereals.

Different Uses of Oats in short:

Food and Drink:

  • Rolled or crushed into oatmeal, or ground into fine oat flour. Oatmeal is chiefly eaten as porridge, but may also be used in a variety of baked goods, such as oatcakesoatmeal cookies and oat bread.
  • Oats are also an ingredient in many cold cereals, in particular muesli and granola.
  • Oats are also used for production of milk substitutes (“oat milk“).
  • In Britain, they are sometimes used for brewing beerOatmeal stout is one variety brewed using a percentage of oats for the wort.
  • A cold, sweet drink called avena made of ground oats and milk is a popular refreshment throughout Latin America.
  • Oatmeal caudle, made of ale and oatmeal with spices, was a traditional British drink and a favourite of Oliver Cromwell.

Fodder and Bedding:

  • Oats are also commonly used as feed for horses when extra carbohydrates and the subsequent boost in energy are required. Cattle are also fed oats. Oat forage is commonly used to feed all kinds of ruminants, as pasture, straw, hay or silage.
  • Oat straw is prized by cattle and horse producers as bedding, due to its soft, relatively dust-free, and absorbent nature.

Other Uses:

  • The straw can also be used for making corn dollies.
  • Tied in a muslin bag, oat straw was used to soften bath water.
  • Oat extracts can also be used to soothe skin conditions, and are popular for their emollient properties in cosmetics.

Medicinal Uses:

Oat grass has been used traditionally for medicinal purposes, including to help balance the menstrual cycle, treat dysmenorrhoea and for osteoporosis and urinary tract infections.

An edited account of our cultivated grains from the Medicinal Flora by J. Barker:

Finally this is the section on grasses and in particular the worlds staple crops (slightly edited) found in ‘The Medicinal Flora of Britain and Northwestern Europe written by Julian Barker, Winter Press, West Wickam, Kent, 2001. Thought it was a really interesting account and I hope you find so too.

“Though not the largest in terms of number of species, no other single family has greater ecological dominance: grasses are estimated to make up the major part in over 20% of terrestrial vegetation.

The origin of agriculture stems largely from the gathering of wild grasses and, when allied to the domestication of forage animals, for which pastures may be sown, the stage is set for the almost inevitable dominance of agricultural/pastoral societies over those of an earlier hunter/gatherer mode.

This most ancient meadowland and hill-pasture is not a natural habitat at all; broad-leaved forest is the climax vegetation of the greater part of Northern- Europe, to which it would revert in time should we fail to survive.

No other plant family, then, has anything like the economic importance of the grasses. Most settled societies (civilisations) and some that are semi-nomadic are based upon staple foods that we have come to call cereals after Ceres the Roman goddess of agriculture.

In Western Asia and adjacent areas, Wheat  and Barley were the first crops to have been systematically exploited and were ground for flour at least 12,000 years ago. Early weeds of the first crops were Rye and Oats that, by the first millennium BC were cultivated in their own right. Sorghum, various Millets and Teff are the main cereals of Africa.

Rice was developed in Southeast Asia along with a Foxtail Millet and Proso and  Maize is indigenous only to the Americas and was the staple food of the civilisations of the warmer latitudes. Cultivation is thought to date from 7000 BC but is more difficult to date because of the senseless destruction of ancient artefacts and records motivated by a sense of theocratic superiority and fear. Not only has the world been deprived of one of its great heritage, but also archaeological reconstructions have been more difficult for lack of clues.

The cereals are annual grasses whose specialised fruit is harvested; the ‘grain’ is a structure where the fruit wall is inseparably fused to the seed which is not only starchy but has an unusual protein rich compartment, as well as oil. The Wheats are from species of Triticum.

Rye is in the genus Secale, the cultivated form of which is S. cereal. The plant is hardier than wheat and can thrive on poorer soils than wheat can, but it makes poor bread on its account of low gluten content.

Cultivated Barley may be considered as Hordeum sativum, but other names are also in use.

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