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The Honest Beauty of Wild Grasses

By Ligaya Mishan

 
Wild Grasses

A tableau of foraged local Phragmites australis, Miscanthus sinensis, dried darnel ryegrass and wild pheasants, arranged by Ruby Barber, the owner of the Berlin floral design studio Mary Lennox. Photo by Guido Castagnoli. Styled by Mary Lennox.

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Wild Grasses

“Encoded in these silhouettes is the memory of movement — grass never appears wholly still.” Photo by Guido Castagnoli. Styled by Mary Lennox.

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Say the word “grass” and you picture not a lone blade but a mass undulation. It is for all practical purposes uncountable, a tease of the infinite. More than 10,000 species compose Poaceae, the family of grass, and together they cover around 40 percent of the earth’s lands (outside of Greenland and Antarctica). Traders and settlers venturing into the American interior in the 18th century took the French word for meadow — prairie, from the Latin pratum — to name the vast expanse that met them, bare of trees, holding up nothing but sky. Even a modern suburban lawn, mowed into submission and confined to an angular patch, is a grasp at space, an attempt to reconjure the great wide open.

The Midwestern architecture critic Donald Hoffmann described the American plains as “nature’s eloquent way of making freedom visible.” From those austere horizontals came Frank Lloyd Wright’s early 20th-century Prairie vernacular: houses built close to the ground with banks of windows to let the outside in; free-flowing floor plans largely unbroken by walls. At the same time, the Danish immigrant Jens Jensen championed a corresponding Prairie School in landscape design, planting gardens and parks with sweeps of native grass — a canvas for the wind to write messages on, and just as quickly erase them.

The longing for lost pastures persists even in the grimy heart of Manhattan, where millions of tourists each year walk the High Line, whose graffitied elevated train tracks have been paved over and seeded with the likes of Cheyenne Sky red switch grass, its flared tips dark as wine; fountaining Atlas fescue; and big bluestem, tough and upright, whose roots can run 12 feet deep. Joints in the concrete purposefully invite the encroachment of wild grass: nature reclaiming space once ceded to the city.

But the High Line — whose gardens are the work of the acclaimed Dutch landscape architect Piet Oudolf — isn’t wild. Its carefully composed dishevelment summons emotion precisely because of its distance from the prairie; even as we admire it, we know that we’ve lost something. Our grasslands, whether called prairie, steppe, savanna or cerrado, are the backbone of our ecosystem, their plunging roots leaching nutrients into the soil and keeping it from washing away in floods, their blades feeding wildlife. Today, they are under threat, with millions of acres converted to crops each year, overgrazed and at the mercy of climate change.

AS IF IN RESPONSE, a number of floral designers are bringing grass, eternally a backdrop, to the fore. The Parisian florist Miyoko Yasumoto, of Une Maison Dans les Arbres in Aubervilliers, takes an explicitly nostalgic approach, harking back to childhood rambles in the outdoors, when “we were animists, connected to Mother Earth and accomplices of each wonder,” she said. From the fields around her family’s farm in southwestern France, she gathers purple-tinged stems of meadow fescue, bristly panicled setaria and Stipa pennata with ghostly white streamers.

These humble grasses offer an alternative to industrially produced flowers, which Yasumoto sees as emblems of “a time of overconsumption,” devolving from ’60s flower power to materialistic “flowerporn.” To Morgane Illes of Atelier Prairies in Provence and Paris, the commercialization of flowers has also created a false pecking order, separating them from grass, their natural companion. The power of grass is precisely that it’s “not luxurious,” she said, but accessible to all, a steady, unbowed presence.

Taken out of the context of the meadow, grasses still testify to the linear passage of time, an idea that is prevalent in the work of Silka Rittson-Thomas, the owner of the TukTuk Flower Studio in Mayfair. Her grasses, sourced primarily from her garden in the Cotswolds, trace the arc of the seasons: delicate in spring, abundant in summer and dried in fall.

Encoded in these silhouettes is the memory of movement — grass never appears wholly still. “The least draft will lift their heads or shake their tails,” said Melissa Richardson of JamJar Flowers in Southeast London. She sometimes focuses on one type at a time, be it Stipa gigantea, which “turns to pure gold in the afternoon light,” or any of the grasses “whose names I hardly know, that I have simply gathered from the hedgerows.”

Like Yasumoto, who draws from the Japanese principles of ikebana, in which grass is as important as flowers, the London florist Alex Nutting rejects the idea of hierarchy. At Aesme, in Shepherd’s Bush, she and her sister, Jess Lister, interweave ornamental grasses from their cutting garden — puffball bunny tails, fluffy pampas grass begging to be stroked like a feather boa — with foraged blue-green cocksfoot, common bent with its blushing haze and velvety Yorkshire fog, which thrives in drainage ditches. These might be paired in early summer with garden roses, arranged as a meeting of equals, and later added to lighten the brooding heaviness of drowsy-headed dahlias and chrysanthemums.

In Berlin, the florist Ruby Barber of Mary Lennox often forsakes conventional flowers entirely, preferring the unexpected textures of cascading miscanthus or Briza media, which shivers. But she rejects the orthodoxy of using only native plants, granting herself the freedom to mix gathered grasses with waxy anthuriums and voluptuous orchids, in a surreal gesture, or to use a single anchoring stalk to “bring an opulent arrangement back down to earth,” she said.

Embedded in each arrangement is the story of how grass lives and fades, from its silkiness when first cut to the deepening and then fading of colour and the slow curl and fray of the leaves. The colour brown, so long disdained in floral designs, is now ascendant. “Some of my chicest clients favour decay over anything else,” Barber said. A spray of drying grass is death looked in the eye — something honest and unflinching in a prevaricating world.