"When as the breezes pass The gleaming rushes lean a thousand ways".
THE wind has many fosterlings in the outdoor world, but the grasses, rushes, and sedges are, in a peculiar sense, his own.
The grasses grow in prairies and open fields. The rushes are most abundant on roadsides and river-shores, and in bogs and moist meadows, and while some sedges live on the low-lying banks of brooks and ditches, others are found in marshes, on sea-beaches, and on mountain-tops, above the tree-line. So the grasses, rushes, and sedges generally prefer the breeziest situations which the countryside affords.
The wind is the author of their being, for their flowers, for untold generations, have been wind-fertilized.
And the wind has moulded them, for the rushes and sedges, like the grasses, have long, narrow leaves and swaying stems, so that gales can pass through and over them, leaving them unharmed.
Fig. 46. - Five familiar water-rushes.
1, Juncus bufonius; 2. J'uncus tenuis. 3. Juncus Greenii; 4, Juncus effusus, or "soft-rush"; 5, Juncus articulatus.
The rushes were apparently the last of these three families to be adopted by the wind. Their flowers are small and humble, but the unlearned in botany would recognize them as flowers indeed, still showing a distinct likeness to their far-off cousins, the lilies. In the sedges the six leaves of the lily flower have become curiously changed or have been abolished altogether, and certain ancestral traits are wellnigh obliterated.
So the Nature-student will find the rushes the more approachable family of the two, and an acquaintance with them will prove the best means of introduction to the sedges, their distant cousins.
We somehow expect a rush to be a vegetable of imposing proportions. Perhaps this is because the name is often given to the stately cat-tail flags.
But the true rushes - in our latitudes, at least - are small affairs. The tallest are barely four feet high, and the least form a close mat upon the ground, in moist and sunny places.
They are broadly divided into two groups, the "water-" and the "wood"-rushes, and a tyro can refer his particular specimen to its own group at a glance, for all the water-rushes are smooth and all the wood-rushes are hairy (Fig. 47).
Fig. 47. - A wood-rush (Lazula campestris).
a, Unripe seed-vessel cut across; bt ripened and emptied seed-vessel.
Both sorts have round, tapering blossom-stems, sometimes hollow, but generally filled with a continuous fine, white pith.
In old times this pith served for the wicks of the "rushlights" which made darkness visible to our great-grandfathers, and whose inadequacy fostered the habits of early getting to bed, now abandoned by a generation of night-owls, abetted by gas and electricity.
The leaves of the water-rushes are generally round, smooth, and glossy, and those of many species resemble the stems in all points, save that they wear no crown of buds and flowers.
In some of our commonest water-rushes the leaves are reduced to sheaths, and they merely en-fold the base of the flower-stalk, which has assumed all their duties in the vegetable economy, besides fulfilling its own. In the skin of this doubly-useful flower-stalk there are many stomata, and beneath the skin are cells filled with chlorophyll, so that the whole surface-tissue transpires and digests, as do the green parts of foliage leaves.
Though the flowering stems of most rushes are filled with pith, their tubular leaves are often hollow, and those of many species are kept in shape by an interesting little contrivance.
If you draw one of these leaves slowly between thumb and finger, compressing it closely meantime, you feel that there are little lumps or knots in its inner substance. And if you split it lengthwise with a penknife you find that there are green girders extending across the internal hollow and placed at regular distances apart (Fig. 48). The members of the family which bear such foliage as this are called "knotty-leaved rushes".
Fig. 48. - Lengthwise section of the tubular leaf of a " knotty - leaved " rush.
Their structure furnishes an answer to the mechanical problem "devise some economical means to prevent a cylinder of delicate tissue from collapsing".
The same problem has occurred in the organization of some seaweeds, and has been solved by Nature in almost the same way.
There are no eccentricities or complications in the leaves of the wood-rushes, which are flat, hairy and grass-like.
The flowers of all the rushes are borne in a large, loose cluster.
This cluster generally tops the stem, and beside the flowers are a pair or trio or circle of slender, green spears, which together constitute the "involucre".
In the common "soft-rush" the involucre consists of a single leaf.
This pokes up aggressively, prolonging the line of the stalk, so that the flower cluster is thrust from its place and dangles down sidewise. But, despite appearances to the contrary, the blossoms crown the stem, after the custom of the rushes, and all above them is a single "involu-cral leaf".
The flowers of the wood- and water-rushes are all of the same lily-like type. There are three green sepals, with semi-transparent edges (Fig. 49) touched with brown or rose, and three petals, which are often chaffy and semi-transparent throughout. Some rushes have three stamens, some have six, and at the heart of the flower is the pistil with three feathery stigmas spread abroad like the lines in the letter Y. These are often rosy-red, and their little plumes glisten like spun-glass, so that the flowers are pretty, even now, when the colors have faded from their petals. They close, finally and in conclusion, soon after they are picked, so that one who would identify the species had better take his "key" into the fields.
Fig. 49. - Flower cluster and flower analysis of a common water-rush (Juncus articulatus).
1, The blossom seen from above; 2, the blossom seen from one side; 3, the nearly ripe seed-vessel sectioned across; 4, the ripened and empty seed-vessel sectioned across.