Grass Space

‘Grass is the forgiveness of Nature -her constant benediction’ ~ John James Ingalls


Humans discovered cereal grasses over 10,000 years ago and explored their unparalleled use as food, which turned out to be a prerequisite for civilizations in time. Out of the 7000 plant species cultivated for food (70% grass crops)*, the three ‘king makers’ of grasses – Wheat, Rice and Maize – that together supply 50 % of the world food; and they comes first in the global production of  crops, along with Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum L.)

  • Wheat (Triticum aestivum), the ‘king of cereals’
  • Barley (Hordeum vulgare), the first cultivated crop
  • Corn or Maize (Zea mays), the ‘queen of cereals’
  • Rice (Oryza sativa), the most consumed food 

A Review on History of  Grass Classification and Future perspectives 

Owing to economic and ecological importance of the family many attempts have been made for obtaining a useful classification for the grasses. It is seen that there are four successive revolutionary periods, which is marked by the introduction of anatomical, physiological and molecular characters to supplement gross morphology in classification.

  1. Brown(1814) made the first scientific division, and he classified grasses into two “tribes” (subfamilies), viz., “Poaceae” (Pooideae) and “Paniceae”(Panicoideae), which was based on morphology of spikelet characters.
  2. The ‘New systematics’ which are primarily based on size of chromosomes, orientation and size of the first seedling leaf, as well as anatomical features eventually lead to the separation of chloridoid grasses from the pooids. Stebbins and Crampton (1961) suggested a classification system, and it has been mostly set up on the basis of anatomical, cytological and physiological features rather than traditional morphological characters such as the nature of the inflorescences and spikelets, and it has recognized into 6 subfamilies.
  3. A comprehensive system of Clayton and Renvoize (1986) recognised 6 subfamilies (Bambusoideae, Centothecoideae, Pooideae, Arundinoideae, Chloridoideae and Panicoideae) and is widely used in Grass systematic studies now. It has presented predictive evolutionary relationships at the tribal and generic level, which have been relied upon by subsequent workers for their studies on evolution and phylogenetic reconstructions.
  4. The phylogenetic classifications  (GPWG, 2000; 2001, 2012 & Soreng et al, 2015) recognized 12 subfamilies, 51 tribes, 80 subtribes, and 771 genera in approximately 12074 species within the family based on a combined analysis of molecular as well as morphological characters. Here, the system recognised three species-poor lineages (Anomochlooideae, Pharoideae and Puelioideae) that are successively sister to all other grasses  and placed the bulk of grass diversity in two main clades, known by their acronyms as BOP (Bambusoideae,  Oryzoideae and Pooideae) and PACMAD (Panicoideae, Arundinoideae, Chloridoideae, Micrairoideae, Aristidoideae and Danthonioideae).

OPINION:  The current classification system (GPWG I & II ; Kellogg, 2015*) is established on the basis about 80% of representative World grass genera/taxa. Many narrowly distributed Asian taxa especially belonging to Andropogoneae, the largest tribe in the family, were poorly represented in current phylogenetic studies ?! 

IMPACT : Dear Dr. Kiran Raj, Thank you for your note and for your concerns about the representation of Indian grasses in phylogenetic studies.  You are certainly correct that many Indian endemics are missing from phylogenetic studies despite high diversity in Peninsular India.  And you are right that future molecular studies may become meaningless.  This issue has been a source of concern for many non-Indian botanists as well, myself included.  It would make a lot of sense if Indian botanists were to undertake the necessary molecular systematic studies.  They are the ones with the deepest knowledge of their own flora, and I would love to see the kinds of studies you are describing being done in India.  The beauty of DNA sequence data is that it is easy to share.  It can be deposited in Genbank or EMBL and then integrated with dozens of other downstream studies thereby amplifying the voice of Indian botany worldwide.   The reason that molecular systematics work isn’t being done by non-Indian botanists is because it is nearly impossible for any western botanist to obtain material legally from India.  The one positive development is that techniques of DNA extraction are now becoming good enough that we are able to work with herbarium specimens, so we can sometimes include specimens that are housed in European herbaria.  We did try to get DNA sequences from a fragment of a specimen of Lakshmia that was sent to us by JeF Veldkamp from Leiden. However, the material was heavily infested by a fungus and we got a lot of fungal DNA and very little from the plant.  Jan Hackel and Guillaume Bernard, in Montpellier, are having very good success sequencing many grasses from herbarium material, so perhaps things will get better in the future.  Thanks very much for bringing up this issue – many non-Indian botanists share your concern. — E. A. Kellogg (*Personal Communication) 


Cladogram showing different clades and subfamilies. Representative genera/species shown in parenthesis (GPWG, 2012)

Tree of Grass

‘The Tree of Grass’ : Phylogenetic relationships of ancestral groups, subfamilies and tribes of family Poaceae (Soreng et al, 2015)

G R A S S   Links…

GrassWorld: An online information system of the world’s grasses

Grass Genera of the World by L. Watson and M. J. Dallwitz

GrassBaseSpecies descriptions of World Grass Flora by W.D. Clayton, et. al.

Vascular Plant families and Genera by RBG, Kew

e-Monocot: An online resource for Monocot plants.

Tropicos : More links on grasses and New World grasses

Bamboo Identification: On-line resource for Bamboos

Grass Phylogeny Working Group(GPWG): Research on grass classification

Grass India: A photo essay on sedges & grasses of India

GrassPortal: Databases for grass systematics

Herbarium Catalogue of RBG, Kew

* 31,128 species of Useful plants in World [WORLD PLANTS’ STATUS REPORT 2016]



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