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.
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.
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.
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.
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.