Hugh Harris: Introduction to Grasses

Museum Meadow (Hugh Harris)


British Wildlife Identification Workshop at World Museum: Monday 10 th July 2017 (led by Peter Gateley and Wendy Atkinson)

The aims of the workshop were to develop skills in identifying British native grass species, recognise the most widely occurring grasses and to familiarise ourselves with reference book keys and herbarium specimens.

Peter Gateley, local Ecologist recommended at least 2 guides for starters in grass identification:

  • FSC “Guide to Common Grasses”
  • C.E. Hubbard, “Grasses”, Third Edition, 1984 Penguin Books

We started with naming of parts of live specimens and photographs which are diagnostic in identifying the grass; Inflorescence (flower head), florets, awns, spikelets, ligules, leaves and growth forms. Then we were given an overview of common meadow grasses and their habitats;

Common meadow grasses

Perennial rye-grass

Lolium perenne

Common bent

Agrostis capillaris

Crested dog’s-tail

Cynosurus cristatus

Creeping bent

Agrostis stolonifera


Dactylis glomerata

Red fescue

Festuca rubra

Yorkshire fog

Holcus lanatus

Rough meadow-grass

Poa trivialis

Meadow foxtail

Alopecurus pratensis

Annual meadow-grass

Poa annua


Phleum pratense

Smooth meadow-grass

Poa pratensis

False oat-grass

Arrhenatherum elatius


Found in playing fields and lawns.


Waste ground and roadside grasses

Soft brome

Bromus hordeaceus

Common couch

Elytriga repens

Barren brome

Anisantha sterilis

Sweet vernal-grass

Anthoxanthum odoratum

Wall barley

Hordeum murinum



Wendy Atkinson, Assistant Curator of Botany gave the workshop access to the historic collections of grasses in the World Museum Herbarium and allowed members to examine the specimens with their hand lenses. Wendy’s duties involve the care and management of the botanical collections of the World Museum with responsibilities in the curation and development of the collections, and in managing their documentation and digitisation. She also supports access to the collections through enquiries, displays, workshops and exhibitions, and through the supervision of volunteers, work placements and visiting researchers. She is also responsible for the botanical library. Wendy’s areas of interest lie in the British and Irish Flora, with a research interest in the Flora of Bantry Bay, SW Ireland. She is also involved in botany at a local level and is the secretary of the Liverpool Botanical Society.

The herbarium born of a Victorian passion for collecting, pressing, drying and attaching plants to individual sheets of paper or preserving in spirit in glass jars has become a vital tool for preserving world flora. Wendy’s well-curated herbarium covers 98% of the British and Irish native flora and covers a time-span of over two hundred years including collections from J. H. Balfour (1808-1884) and G. C. Druce (1850-1932). The collections are particularly rich in the local flora containing the collections of local prominent botanists such as J. A. Wheldon (1862-1924), Vera Gordon (1916-2003) and Eric Greenwood.

After lunch, we entered the City wildflower meadow, an ambitious project to create a colourful and diverse natural wildflower meadow that will brighten-up the existing grassed area and which will become a small urban wildlife refuge. The Museum also would like to use this space to promote strong environmental messages. 

Over 10 tonnes of turf and top soil have been removed from the site and replaced with sand and limestone dust. This has reduced the fertility of the meadow and encouraged high plant diversity by ensuring that there are not enough nutrients for potentially dominant plants to overpower other plants.

A small voluntary team of natural science curatorial staff have planted over 4,000 native wildflower plants and at least 150 different species of wildflowers and grasses are now established. Slowly but surely, the bare patches of soil and uniform areas of grass are starting to disappear. Once fully established, there should be significant colour in the meadow for six months of the year.

Here the workshop group used their diagnostic skills to identify the various grasses in the meadow.

Back at the workshop, Peter Gateley introduced us to the lateral key method with a code table for recording grasses. This adapted key was designed for use in lowland Britain and excludes chalk grasslands. Using the code table, the recorder looks along the rows from left to right and sees how many of the characteristics match those of his specimen. The line with the most characteristics should identify his specimen.











Additional notes








Italian rye-grass

A; basal sheath wine red, spikelets edgeways on to stem; rnG