When I tell people that I study grasses, the first response I get is generally a wisecrack about the “grass” people smoke.

After a laugh, I explain that it’s not that kind of grass, and that grasses are about more than pretty lawns: humanity relies on grasses for our survival. Indeed, civilization arose in concert with the domestication of grasses, including wheat, rice and corn.

And, there’s still a lot to learn about the grass family (Poaceae), which includes about 11,000 species, of which only about ten have been domesticated for human consumption.

A scientist collects plants on the bank of a river.
Museum researcher Jeff Saarela, Ph.D. collecting grasses along the banks of the Coppermine River near Kugluktuk, Nunavut. Image: Paul Sokoloff, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The next question I often get is “What’s your favourite grass?”

That’s a tough one. I find all species unique and interesting in their own ways, so I have a different favourite at different times. My current favourite grass species is the Arctic Brome Grass (Bromus pumpellianus).

This species is at the intersection of my research program’s two major themes. The first is the global systematics of grasses: characterizing grass biodiversity and evolutionary history.

The second theme focuses specifically on the biodiversity of Arctic vascular plants. Grasses are one of the most diverse and widespread groups of Arctic plants, with some species growing as far north as Canada’s northernmost point of land near Cape Columbia, Nunavut.

A close-up of a grass growing in front of a lake.
The Arctic Brome Grass (Bromus pumpellianus) is museum researcher Jeff Saarela’s current favourite grass. Image: Paul Sokoloff, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Arctic Brome Grass (Bromus pumpellianus) is part of a worldwide genus (Bromus) of about 160 species. This genus is interesting because it’s closely related to the group of grasses that includes wheat (Triticum aestivum) and other cereals. My goal is to use DNA to better understand the origin of this genus, how its various species are related to one other (and how they evolved), and how they came to live where we can find them now.

Arctic Brome Grass is the only native North American member of a primarily Eurasian group of closely-related species within Bromus. It occurs in western Canada, and its range extends beyond the treeline into the southern Arctic, as far north as the Arctic coast, and as far west as Bathurst Inlet, Nunavut. As the climate changes, this grass may migrate northwards to adjacent Victoria Island.

Check out the video to learn more.

A pressed and dried plant specimen mounted on a herbarium sheet.
This herbarium specimen of Arctic Brome Grass (Bromus pumpellianus) is one of thousands that museum researcher Jeff Saarela has examined for his research on the biodiversity of Arctic grasses. Catalogue number: CAN 595172. Image: Shan Leung © Canadian Museum of Nature.

What’s your favorite grass? (No wisecrack responses, please.)