Below is a Christmas picture of a common roadside grass in Chiang Mai: mission grass (Pennisetum polystachion, Poaceae/Graminae). A Central Thai name is ‘ya kha chon chop dok lek’.
This is one of Dokmai Garden‘s most common grasses. Unfortunately, spelling differences has made a compilation of facts difficult: Mabberley’s Plant Book (2008) – Pennisetum polystachyion, the Plant List (2010)- Pennisetum polystachion, Tem Smitinand’s Thai plant names (2001) – Pennisetum polystachyon. Which one is correct? You have to go to the original species description which, even if grammmatically incorrect, is the correct scientific name unless later corrected according to the International code of nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants.
Its original Linnean name Panicum polystachion was published in Systema Naturae edition 10 vol. 2, page 870 in 1759. I am not aware if a conservation of this name has been made. Peter Forsskål’s Phalaris setacea is acknowledged as a separate species, but according to the Transactions of the Linnean Society it is synonymous with Linnaeus’ Panicum polystachion. Peter Forsskål was a Swedish explorer and naturalist and a disciple of Linnaeus. He died of malaria in Yemen in 1763.
Anyhow, this grass is native to Africa, western India and Pakistan but now common all over tropical Asia and invasive in Australia and USA. In Thailand it starts flowering in the late rainy season and early cold and dry season. Grass seeds are popular among scaly breasted munias and even chicken. It is fire tolerant, drought tolerant, good for erosion control and young grass is a good fodder for cattle. Taller grass burn easily which we have seen lately around Dokmai Garden, and that may have a negative impact on trees.
Text & Photo: Eric Danell