A grass is a grass is a grass—or is it?

In fact, grasses are a family of over 12 000 species! As a budding botanist, I wouldn’t have touched the grasses with a 10-foot pole.

A diagram.
Anatomy of a grass inflorescence. (The inflorescence is the flowering part of the plant). The basic unit of the inflorescence is the spikelet (shown in red), which contains one or many florets (blue). Specific parts include
a) upper glume
b) lower glume
c) lemma
d) palea
e) awn
f) anther
g) filament
h) stigma
i) ovary (matures into fruit known as grain or caryopsis). Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

The grass family, called Poaceae, is characterized by reduced floral characteristics and simple linear leaves. Pair that with frequent hybridization between species, and it’s a recipe for long nights spent crying into the microscope trying to tell a grass from a grass (ok, maybe I’m being slightly dramatic).

But when you decide to do a Master’s thesis with the Canadian Museum of Nature’s grass expert, Lynn Gillespie, Ph.D., there’s a chance you’re going to have to strap on your big-botanist boots and plunge into the grasses.

So here I am, studying a small grass genus composed of two species: ice grass (Phippsia algida) and snow grass (Phippsia concinna). They are extremely closely related—both are small, tufted, perennial grasses that are found in late-melting snowbeds and other wet, sandy habitats, and reproduce primarily through self-pollination—and thus far, little genetic variation has been found to separate the two.

Composite: Two sheets of paper with dried plants attached.
Herbarium vouchers of ice grass (left; Phippsia algida) and snow grass (right; Phippsia concinna) from Svalbard, Norway. A common characteristic that is used to distinguish the two species is the shape of the flowering part of the plant (inflorescence): narrow and dense in ice grass and diffuse with spreading branches in snow grass. Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

Ice grass occurs in the circumpolar Arctic with disjunct populations located in the North American Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, U.S.A.

Snow grass is well documented in Eurasia, but its presence in Greenland and North America has been debated since the 1950s. So where in the world is snow grass?

In order to answer this burning question, I joined a team of four other botanists from the museum and hopped on eight planes over 30 days to survey plants in three Nunavut communities: Arviat, Naujaat and Iqaluit.

The hunt for my grasses began in Arviat, the southernmost mainland community of Nunavut. Neither species had been previously reported from this locality, but a collection of ice grass from approximately 60 km north of the area left me hopeful.

We hit pay dirt just a few days into the trip and I’m embarrassed to say that, despite having spent the weeks prior studying my grasses under the microscope, I had no idea what I held in my hand.

Composite: A hand holds a plant specimen, the ground, a plant.
Ice grass from Arviat. Left: Our very first specimen. Middle: Second population, locally common and dominant on wet sand. Right: Close-up of an inflorescence. Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature

The ice grass plants of Arviat were small—around the size of a toonie ($2 coin) or ever-so-slightly larger—which was surprising considering how far south we were. We collected from three populations of ice grass, all from sandy, coastal habitats.

A woman sitting on the ground.
Getting low to photograph tiny ice grass plants on the sandy shore of Hudson Bay in Arviat. Image: Lynn Gillespie © Canadian Museum of Nature

Lynn Gillespie and I then headed north to two regions where both ice grass and snow grass had supposedly been collected.

Did we find the elusive snow grass in our great Canadian Arctic? You’ll have to read the second installment of this article to find out.

A sign that says "Welcome to Naujaat" in English, French and Inuktitut, with a helicopter and building in the background.
The adventure continues in Naujaat. Image: Samantha Godfrey © Canadian Museum of Nature