The earliest grass to flower in quantity in the Gloucestershire meadows is Meadow Foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis) sometimes joined by Sweet Vernal Grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum).
Meadow Foxtail is the first thing to poke up its head above the general level of the sward, and the dense waving flowering heads in May, can give the meadows a dark shimmering haze at about knee height.
In the meadow photo, Meadow Foxtail is the one waving its heads in the clouds, with Sweet Vernal the main grass flowering in the lower storey. The buttercup is Bulbous Buttercup, also an early flowerer.
Up close, the reason for the name Foxtail is obvious, and the flowerhead can be seen to be packed quite densely and neatly usually into a parallel-sided cylinder. Sweet Vernal can have the same overall shape but is looser and tattier. Sweet Vernal is a much shorter grass – usually only up to mid-calf height.
Get really close, with good eyesight or the help of a hand lens, and the individual components making up the flowering head look very different. From the photos with the pulled-apart heads, it can be seen that the spikelets of Sweet Vernal are lopsided, and they are on short stalks up to about 1mm long joining to the main stem. The spikelets of Meadow Foxtail are flattened but elegant and almost symmetrical, joining the main stem with virtually no stalk.
- When in doubt, chew it!
Pull a grass stem so that the lower part of the stem comes out clean from its sheath. Chew it. Wait a few seconds and see what taste sensation you get. Meadow Foxtail is pleasant enough, but nothing special. Sweet Vernal has a rich sweet perfume – the scent of “new mown hay” due to the chemical coumarin. Hence the name – Sweet because it is sweet, and Vernal which means spring-time.
- In the past, both grasses have been sown by farmers, Meadow Foxtail has early growth, good yield and stock find it highly palatable. However, it takes several years to establish well so isn’t suitable for modern requirements in a temporary grass field. Sweet Vernal was widely sown because of its fragrance but is no longer considered an agricultural grass as it does not produce much matter and is rather stemmy. Apparently, stock don’t like it much.