grass, any plant of the family Gramineae, an important and widely distributed group of vascular plants, having an extraordinary range of adaptation. Numbering approximately 600 genera and 9,000 species, the grasses form the climax vegetation (see ecology) in great areas of low rainfall throughout the world: the prairies and plains of North America, the savannas and pampas of South America, the steppes and plains of Eurasia, and the veldt of Africa.
Most grasses are annual or perennial herbs with fibrous roots and, often, rhizomes. The stems are always noded and are typically hollow and swollen at the nodes, although many genera have solid stems. The leaves have two parts: a sheath surrounding the stem (called the culm in grasses); and a blade, usually flat and linear. The flowers are of a unique form, the inflorescence being subdivided into spikelets each containing one or more tiny florets. (In other flowering plants the inflorescences are clusters of separate flowers, never spikelets.) The dry seedlike fruit is called a caryopsis, or grain.
Economically the grass family is of far greater importance than any other. The cereal grasses, e.g., wheat, rice, corn, oats, barley, and rye, provide the grain that is the staple food of most of mankind and the major type of feed. The grasses also include most of the hay and pasture plants, e.g., sorghum, timothy, bent grass, bluegrass, orchard grass, and fescue. Popularly the word grass is used chiefly for these latter and for the lawn grass types; it is also loosely applied to plants which are not true grasses (e.g., clover and alfalfa) but which are similarly grown.
Molasses and sugar are products of sugarcane and sorghum, both grasses. Many liquors are made from grains and molasses. Plants of the grass family are also a source of industrial ethyl alcohol, corn starch and byproducts, newsprint and other types of paper, and numerous lesser items. Especially in the tropics, species of reed, bamboo (one of the few woody types), and other genera are used for thatching and construction. As food, grasses are as important for wildlife as for domesticated animals. They are able to survive grazing because their intercalary meristems are set back from the apex of the plant. Because of the tenacious nature of their large underground root system, grasses (e.g., beach grass) are often introduced to prevent erosion. Grasses are classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Liliopsida, order Cyperales, family Gramineae.
See U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Grass: The Yearbook of Agriculture (1948); A. S. Hitchcock, A Manual of Grasses of the United States (2 vol., 2d ed. 1971); J. W. Bews, The World's Grasses (1929, repr. 1973).
grass / gras/ • n. 1. vegetation consisting of typically short plants with long narrow leaves, growing wild or cultivated on lawns and pasture, and as a fodder crop. ∎ ground covered with grass: he sat down on the grass. ∎ pastureland: the farms were mostly given over to grass. 2. the mainly herbaceous plant that constitutes such vegetation, which has jointed stems and spikes of small, wind-pollinated flowers. 3. inf. marijuana. 4. Brit., inf. a police informer. • v. [tr.] 1. (usu. be grassed) cover (an area of ground) with grass: hillsides so closely grassed over, they seem to be painted green. ∎ feed (livestock) with grass. 2. [intr.] Brit., inf. inform the police of criminal activity or plans: someone had grassed on the thieves. PHRASES: not let the grass grow under one's feet not delay in acting or taking an opportunity.DERIVATIVES: grass·less adj. grass·like / -ˌlīk/ adj.
In literary or poetic use, grass is often referred to as growing over and covering graves and battlefields. The image may also cover the idea of grass growing in the streets of a formerly prosperous community returning to the wilderness.
The word is recorded in Old English (in form græs) and is of Germanic origin, ultimately related to green and grow.
the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence mid 20th century, meaning that something just out of reach always appears more desirable than what one already has. The idea is an old one; the Roman poet Ovid in Ars Amatoria has, ‘the harvest is always more fruitful in another man's fields.’
grass roots the most basic level of an activity or organization, a figurative use recorded from the early 20th century, and now particularly applied in politics to the rank-and-file of a political organization.
grass widow a woman whose husband is away often or for a prolonged period. In the early 16th century, the word denoted an unmarried woman with a child, perhaps from the idea of the couple having lain on the grass instead of in bed. The current sense dates from the mid 19th century.
not let the grass grow under one's feet not delay in acting or taking an opportunity.
put out to grass force to retire, make redundant. Used literally of putting a horse or other animal out to graze. In figurative use since the late 16th century, the earlier form of the expression was with turn (out) rather than put out.
while the grass grows, the steed starves dreams or expectations may be realized too late; proverbial saying, mid 14th century.
See also snake in the grass.
So grasshopper XV. Extended form of †grasshop, OE. gærshoppa (f. gærs + hoppa, agent-noun of hoppian HOP1). grass widow †unmarried woman who has cohabited XVI; married woman away from her husband XIX (first in India). The first el. may have alluded orig. to a bed of grass or hay. grassy XVI.