New books will increase knowledge about grasses across the state
Bob Shaw, Ph.D., would like to see more people out picking grass. Not just any grass, but new species that haven't been documented in a particular county of Texas.
Shaw, a Texas A&M University ecosystem science and management professor, has added about 200 new grass species to a book first written by Frank Gould in 1975. Shaw's "Guide to Texas Grasses," written with the help of a team at the Texas A&M University Institute of Renewable Natural Resources, was recently released and is available in flexible binding form.
Gould's version of the book, "Grasses of Texas," listed 523 species of grass. The new version, funded through the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and Texas A&M AgriLife Research, expands that number to 723, including ornamentals, Shaw said.
"Dr. Gould was my teacher and mentor. I used his book as a baseline," Shaw said. "There have been no updates in 37 years and there's been quite a bit of change over the years. While some people have done regional books or concentrated on major grasses, there was no complete listing of every grass that has been reported for Texas."
Shaw said new county records of grasses are recorded almost every week. New state records come in once or twice every two to five years.
"What we are trying to do is have people in counties collect more samples so we can update the county databases," he said. "There are new species that have not been collected in particular counties and we want to make sure we can document where each species can be found."
Shaw, along with Barron Rector, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension range specialist in College Station, and graduate student Amanda Dube, published "Distribution of Grasses in Texas" in 2011. That publication listed all the grasses by county. At that time, Martin County only had about seven different species reported, "and there's probably more than 200, they just have never been collected and documented," Shaw said.
"We are trying to stimulate people to do more collecting and identification," he said. "Brazos County has the most grass species reported, 283, because of all of the grass classes at Texas A&M and Frank Gould's and Stephan Hatch's collecting. But grass collecting would be a great project for youth involved in 4-H or plant identification classes, as well as Master Gardeners."
New county grass records can come from anywhere, Shaw said.
Hatch, a professor in the department of ecosystem science and management and director of the S.M. Tracy Herbarium, recently found tef grass behind the Red Lobster restaurant in downtown College Station. Tef is an introduced, annual grass species from Africa that is sometimes used as livestock forage or human food.
Shaw said it may have been planted on the vacant lot as an annual cover to prevent erosion or just invaded the site. Only about half the site supported the grass growth. It will be monitored this spring and summer to see if the tef survives and spreads.
Prior to this find, tef had only been recorded from Bell County. It probably has a wider distribution, but just hasn't been collected and documented in other counties, he said.
Shaw said a website, http://essmextension.tamu.edu/plants/grasses, is available to report new county records documented by voucher specimens.
Studying grasses since 1976, Shaw earned his master's and doctorate degrees at Texas A&M University before working at the University of Florida and Colorado State University. He returned to Texas A&M in 2007 and has been compiling the new grass information and updates for the past three years.
The 1,100-page book covers why grasses are important, what constitutes a grass and a description of the different Texas eco-regions. It also includes an ecological checklist of 723 grass species reported for the state, a brief description, illustration and often a photograph of each grass.
With an entire page dedicated to each grass species, the classification will identify what eco-regions it is found in and will say whether it is a cool-season or warm-season grass, perennial or annual, ornamental or not, and whether it is considered rare or endangered, he said. Also included is whether it is of value to livestock as a feed or whether it is noxious, Shaw said.
"Our target audience with this book is anyone interested in agriculture, because grasses are so important," he said. "But naturalists, AgriLife Extension county agents, Master Gardeners, academia and some in the general public will also find this useful for identification of grasses."
Shaw said it was time to update the book because there have been a lot of additional introduced weeds and ornamental grasses discovered across Texas.
To be documented, someone has to collect a specimen of the new grass and send the specimen for verification and storage at the S.M. Tracy Herbarium on the Texas A&M University campus. He said this is where all unidentified grasses should be sent.
"What I used was published materials from other people and other research," Shaw said. "I compiled all the information that had been generated."
Understanding what grasses are growing where helps researchers know more about the ecology of an area, he said. In addition to recognizing the invasion and establishment of exotics or weedy species, grasses can be very indicative of land use and disturbance.
Guide to Texas Grasses was published by Texas A&M University Press and the Texas Book Consortium and can be purchased on the website http://tamupress.com/product/Guide-to-Texas-Grasses,6690.aspx or through other book outlets. The cost is $45. Distribution of Grasses in Texas was published by the Botanical Research Institute of Texas and can be purchased on the website http://brit.org/brit-press/books/sbm-33 for $20.