A specialist guide that lacks grass roots

Population Biology of Grasses
February 12, 1999

The grasses are a quite astonishing family, and equally astonishing is the specialised vocabulary necessary adequately to describe their characteristics. Although specific terms are explained when first mentioned, a glossary would have been a useful addition to this volume. Maybe some terminology could have been avoided altogether, or at least made more reader friendly. For example, it is hard to tell simply by looking at a patch of grass what is an individual and what is a population, and it takes some explaining and myriad special terms to make sense of it.

Consider this passage: "Antitelechory has been defined as the hindrance of dispersal by placement of seeds at, near or below the soil surface I Using this definition, the life histories of a number of grasses show antitelechoric features." This is a book for specialists. It results from the 1995 annual meeting of the Botanical Society of America, held in San Diego, at which "most participants agreed that a volume on this topic would be timely and of interest to a variety of botanists and ecologists throughout the world".

The main grasses, well known to all and of interest to thousands, occur in substantial populations as managed fields of cereals, providing much of the world's food and feed. Even these domesticated and pampered species have their important aspects of population dynamics and competition among single plants within the crop, and with those other species that are normally called weeds. But even those already involved with agriculture and looking for guidance on these major grasses will probably still turn to more earthy texts than this.

Perhaps there are some university courses in agrostology where it will be an invaluable book, but other botanists may find it rather hard going. Enthusiastic school sixth-form teachers, I suggest, may find this a refreshing read in organismic biology if they are weary of too much emphasis on molecular biology and have keen students looking for inexpensive projects to draw out their best. Ideas will suggest themselves from materials at hand almost anywhere. Tony Bradshaw puts his finger on the educational value of studying grasses: "Grasses provide opportunities for elegant and critical investigations of the relationships between plants and their environment, relationships that may sometimes appear to be simple and obvious, when in reality they are subtle and complex."

The editor is well aware of the deep and historic gulf between pure and agricultural botany. He writes: "Although the bridge between basic and applied plant population biology may be rather narrow, it is one bridge that grass researchers should easily be able to cross!" Amen.

All said and done, for specialists this is an excellent book and covers a wide range of topics. For the non-specialist I would pick out the chapters on allozymic diversity by Mary Jo Godt and James Hamrick and ecological aspects of sex expression by James Quinn as having wider relevance, especially to those interested in genetic resources and evolutionary processes.

Colin L. A. Leakey is an applied biologist and independent consultant.

Population Biology of Grasses

Editor - G. P. Cheplick
ISBN - 0 521 57205 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 399

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