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216 × 138 × 22 mm
224 pages
80 illustrations, 67 in colour
01 Apr 2014

Grasses Stephen A. Harris

Grasses cover approximately one-quarter of the planet’s land surface; four species – wheat, rice, maize and sugar – provide 60 per cent of human calorie intake. Almost all of us at some point play on, relax on, plant, tend or harvest grasses for our own pleasure or sustenance, yet for all that their importance to us is not commonly understood. It is predicted that by 2050 the world’s population will be approximately 9 billion, and 90 per cent of the planet’s land area will be affected by human activities. To feed ourselves we will be more dependent on grasses than ever before.

Grasses explains the history of our relationship with these humble yet vital plants from the end of the last Ice Age to the present day. Perhaps more than any other plant, grasses show the effects of human influence: farmed on a massive scale, they are the ultimate staple crop. In turn we are also influenced by grasses, often fighting to preserve our ‘green space’ and public parks. Stephen Harris describes this relationship against the background of our heightened awareness of climate change: in the future we will have to balance our needs of grass as food, grass as living space and potentially even grass as fuel.

Mixing biology, sociology and cultural history, Grasses provides us with arguably the fullest exploration yet of what grasses mean and have meant: their profound importance to our survival but also to our pleasure, our diets and our minds. Featuring numerous botanical images as well as many fine examples from art and popular culture, Grasses is a must-have for gardeners, food lovers and environmentalists alike. 

‘This delightful hardback, with its thick, glossy pages, beautiful binding and thoughtful imagery, will open your eyes to the fascinating world of grasses. Reading through, you are struck by the fact that grasses seem to permeate every aspect of modern life, without us really acknowledging their presence . . . a book full of things you never even imagined you needed to know, but which linger in the imagination long after reading.’ — Garden Design Journal

‘Those of us who despair of garden writing being reduced to picture captions or to 140-character long snippets can raise a cheer for the appearance of two new books in Reaktion Books Botanical series, a compelling collection that allows knowledgeable writers to explore the social and cultural impact of plants alongside their botanical and horticultural significance . . . Grasses is an absorbing description of Poaceae and other grass-like plants . . . .the books are well-produced, each illustration and photograph is carefully chosen and illuminates the text . . . Both books are magnificent works: breathtaking in their sweep and dazzling in their research and reflection. More like this please.’ — Gardens Illustrated

Grasses provides the reader with scientific information about the history and development of the four species of grass: wheat, rice, maize, and sugar. There are also fascinating stories relating to their use and misuse over the centuries. With a population explosion and the problems related to climate change, it is vital that we learn from the past in order to maintain a proper balance. This book should serve as a wake-up call to those of us who may have thought of grasses as only the lovely green covering in lawns and parks.’ — Chicago Botanic Garden

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Stephen Harris has been Druce Curator of Oxford University Herbaria since 1995 and a University Research Lecturer since 2002. His books include The Magnificent Flora Graeca (2007), Grasses (Reaktion, 2014) and What Have Plants Ever Done for Us? (2015).

1. Dominating the Planet

2. Roaming the World

3. Disguising Grasses

4. Civilizing Humans

5. Confusing Botanists

6. Feeding Humans

7. Sweetening Life

8. Protecting the Crop

9. Foraging the Fields

10. Making a Future

11. Playing the Field

12. Tramping the World

Appendix: Scientific Names


Further Reading

Associations and Websites


Photo Acknowledgements