From the NYT on the 18th, in Kathryn Shattuck’s “For Ranchers, an Uncommon Quest for Grass-Fed Beef” (on-line head: “Where Corn Is King, a New Regard for Grass-Fed Beef”):

[Prescott Frost] put down roots on 7,000 acres in what he calls the Napa Valley of ranchland [the Sandhills of Nebraska], home to more than 700 species of native grasses and forbs: bluestem, buffalo, reed canary, brome — the salad bar on which grass-fed beef is raised.

Native grasses wouldn’t puzzle readers, but forbs is a technical term from botany that will be unfamiliar to many. What’s it doing in this story?

My guess is that Shattuck was quoting from one of her sources for the story, who went on to give the plant examples in the story — all of which are native grasses, not forbs:

[bluestem] Schizachyrium scoparium, commonly known as little bluestem or beard grass, is a North American prairie grass. Little bluestem is a perennial bunchgrass and is prominent in tallgrass prairie, along with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). (link)

[buffalo] Bouteloua dactyloides, commonly known as Buffalograss or Buffalo Grass, is a prairie grass native to North America. It is a shortgrass found mainly on the high plains and is co-dominant with blue grama (B. gracilis) over most of the shortgrass prairie. (link)

[reed canary] Phalaris arundinacea, sometimes known as reed canarygrass, is a tall, perennial bunchgrass that commonly forms extensive single-species stands along the margins of lakes and streams and in wet open areas, with a wide distribution in Europe, Asia, northern Africa and North America. (link)

[brome] Bromus is a large genus of the grass family (Poaceae). Estimates in the scientific literature of the number of species have ranged from 100 to 400, but plant taxonomists currently recognize around 160–170 species. They are commonly known as bromes, brome grasses, cheat grasses or chess grasses. (link)

Forb has come up on this blog once before, in a posting on (among other things) golden marguerites:

The other candidate for plain marguerite, from Wikipedia:

Argyranthemum frutescens, the marguerite and marguerite daisy, is a perennial forb known for its flowers. It is native to the Canary Islands in Macaronesia.

[Further digression on forb, a technical term defined by exclusion:

A forb … is a herbaceous flowering plant that is not a graminoid (grasses, sedges and rushes). The term is used in biology and in vegetation ecology, especially in relation to grasslands and understory. (link)]

This definition of forb involves not only exclusion, but also another technical term, herbaceous flowering plant. From Wikipedia:

A herbaceous plant (in American botanical use simply herb) is a plant that has leaves and stems that die down at the end of the growing season to the soil level. They have no persistent woody stem above ground. Herbaceous plants may be annuals, biennials or perennials.

From NOAD2:

herb  Botany   any seed-bearing plant that does not have a woody stem and dies down to the ground after flowering.

The use of herb to refer to a non-woody plant (contrasted with shrubs and trees) has a long history, going back to the 13th century, but (from the evidence of  OED2) it became a specialized technical term in botany only in the 19th century. Meanwhile, the specialized sense ‘applied to plants of which the leaves, or stem and leaves, are used for food or medicine, or in some way for their scent or flavour’ (now the primary use in ordinary English) has apparently coexisted with the ‘non-woody plant’ sense from the very beginning.

So, a forb is an herb (in the botanists’ technical sense) that is not a graminoid. I suspect that few NYT readers will appreciate that.

One Response to “forbs”

  1. Mammoths and flowers | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Discussion on this blog here. […]

Leave a Reply