What's Blooming Week Five Yellowknifer August 4,2000

Cotton Pickin' Grass

Narrow-leaved cotton grass, Eriophorum angustifolium

Cotton grasses grow all over the North and can be found from spring until fall. Many different species grow here; a common cotton grass around town is narrow-leaved cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium Honckn.). The botanical name describes it well: Erion means "wool" and phoros means "bearing;" angustifolium means "narrow leaved." Its fluffy, woolly heads stand out against the dark colour of bogs or the grasses and sedges that line shallow ponds and lake shores.

Narrow-leaved cotton grass grows 20-40 cm high, with several nodding spikes on a single stem. Two or more linear leaf blades sheathe the stem. Although the solid, unjointed stem is circular in cross-section, it is actually somewhat flattened, with slight edges. The stem also has the characteristic ridges of the sedge family, to which cotton grass belongs. Common names of plants often lead to confusion, as in this case, in which a plant is clearly called a "grass," when it is actually a sedge.

The small, three-sided, black seed is dispersed by the wind when the "fluff" that surrounds the seeds breaks away from the stem. At certain times of the year, Yellowknifers can see the fluff of several different plants that use this system of seed dispersal: willows, cotton grasses and fireweed.

Around 400 years ago, cotton grass was used in Northern Europe for treating colds and coughs. Usage but has since been discontinued because the side effects were sometimes worse than the actual ailments.

As food, the lower stems of cotton grass can be eaten as a raw nibble or added to mixed dishes. The stems must be washed and scraped first. The Inuit eat them raw, as well as preserving them in seal oil.

Inuit have also made use of cotton grass as wicks for their stone lamps (quliq) and as tinder in an area where there is little else to start a fire. The downy heads of cotton grass have also been used to stuff pillows and mattresses.

Many other species of cotton grass grow in the north. Another species around town is E. viridi-carinatum, which is a smaller plant, with smaller flower spikes. Both species can be seen this week around the bog at the Legislative Assembly.

Text 2000 Alexandra Milburn