What is Briza?

Terrie Brockmann

One of the genera in the Poaceae family is the genus Briza, generally known as quaking grasses or cowquake. The plants' very fine stems of the flower and seed heads tremble or quake in a light breeze, giving the plant the name. Generally, it is native to temperate regions of Europe, parts of Asia, and some Mediterranean regions. Gardeners raise the grass as either an annual or a perennial, depending on the species and the growing conditions. Depending on the species, gardeners use Briza grasses in rock garden plantings, as cut flowers in dried arrangements, or as ornamental grasses and specimen plants in landscaping.

Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

One of the most popular Briza species is the B. media, called the common or trembling quaking grass. It is a perennial grass, which has blue-green leaves and usually grows to 6 inches (about 15 cm) tall. In the late spring or early summer, it bears inconspicuous flowers on pyramidal panicles up to 7 inches (about 18 cm) long. Each flowerhead matures into a seed head, which resembles a rattlesnake tail.

The Briza seed heads have two rows, or ranks, of glumes. Glumes are a grass or sedge structure constructed of thin, membrane-like bract. In many quaking grasses, this appears to be a flattened pinecone. B. minor, called little or small quaking grass, has heart-shaped seed heads, showing that the seed head shape depends on the species. These dry, segmented parts rattle in the wind.

B. minor has erect leaves that grow in a cluster from a central point. It is an annual, and growers usually propagate it by sowing the seeds in the spring or autumn. It may grow to a height of 18 inches (45 cm) and 10 inches (25 cm) wide. The pale green, 6-inch (about 15 cm) tall leaves turn to a straw color as the plant ages. From summer to early fall, it bears tall, slender-stemmed panicles of flowers. The flower spikelets may turn from pale green to purplish-green and then change to the same straw color as the leaves.

Generally, people use the names big or large quaking grass or puffed wheat for the species B. maxima. It may reach heights of 18 to 24 inches (45 to 60 cm) and resembles its smaller cousin, but with less triangular seed heads. Often, the seed head is straw colored topped with red calyxes. Many floral designers incorporate big quaking grass and many of the other Briza species in dried floral arrangements. Sometimes they dye the dried grasses for extra color.

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