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The Origin of Grass Species: A History of Lawn

Jun 9, 2016 | 0 comments

 

Have you ever wondered who might’ve been the first person to think “I’d like to have a patch of low-growing grass at the front and back of my house?”

No? Fair enough.

Admittedly, there isn’t as much mystery surrounding this as, say, the first person to think that they’d drink the milk that came out of a cow. Which, you’ve got to admit, is extremely strange to think about. Comparatively, grass seems a natural thing to want. If you’d like to enjoy an outdoor space in your leisure time, why not cover that space with a nice looking plant that softens the ground?

But the question remains, how did it come about?

According to our good friend Wikipedia, “Lawn is a cognate of llan which is derived from the Common Brittonic word landa (Old French: launde) that originally means heath, barren land, or clearing.” It seems as though the first written reference to ‘laune’ came in 1540.

But this isn’t a reference to lawns as we know them today. We live at a time in history where we can afford to have a specified leisure area, which has no job but to look good and let us play cricket on it. This is a very new development.

Early lawns needed to pay their way. If you’re going to have an otherwise bare patch of land, the grass needed to be doing something for you. Most often this meant that you had livestock on your lawn. These early lawns were often indistinguishable from a standard pasture field.

Even if the lawn was obviously being used in a decorative manner, and formed part of the greater garden, the nonexistence of the lawn mower (invented in the 1830s) meant that you still relied on animals to keep the decorative grass in check. This resulted in the lawns of grand estates in the English countryside being overrun by sheep every so often. Manor houses could also pay the area’s paupers to scythe and shear the grass back in a very labour intensive way, putting the ‘cutting the grass with nail-clippers’ chestnut into real-world use.

The famous gardens of Versailles were perhaps the first incarnation of what we’d call the modern lawn, grown for entirely ornamental purposes. Versailles’ chief landscape architect, Andre Le Notre, designed the gardens in the 1700s with what he called tapis vert, or ‘green carpet’. No grazing allowed.

The symbolism of class that came with owning a piece of land that was used for neither a building nor food production was immense. European aristocracy jumped aboard ferociously, and ever so slowly this developed into an appetite for the commoners of Europe to have access to this sort of lawn. In the 1800s, up sprung a wealth of public parks in London, all with a huge emphasis on wide, open, grassy areas.

Grass species over this time were starting to be experimented with, in an effort to find the ideal lawn grass. Initially lawns were just low cut meadow plants, such as chamomile. Slowly, working with the knowledge gained from cross-breeding dogs, new lawns were developed by combining the traits of a variety of plants. African and Asian plains grasses were shipped in. European pastures were cross-bred. There were trials with low-lying herbs, wildflowers, and other ground covers.

Soon, Europeans enjoyed a wealth of choice when it came to grass species. Cool season varieties such as Bluegrass, Bentgrass, Ryegrass and Fescues were all bred in a way that lent them more to being used as display grasses. Eventually, areas with warmer climates became interested in the lawn trend, and warm season varieties such as Zoysia, Bermuda, Buffalo and Carpet grass were developed.

By the time Australia was colonised by the British, lawn culture was embedded in the minds of the settlers. And with the rise of the Australian dream through the 20th century – setting your house on a spacious quarter acre block – the idea of a family’s house being surrounded by a lush covering of turf became the essence of what it was (and still is) to be Australian.

That ideal is as strong today as ever. And McKays is here to help you turn it into a reality.

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