Grass photography tips for ID: Help us help you!

Need help identifying a grass? Learn how to capture those critical photos that can help your identifier.

Crabgrass growing in a lawn.
Photo 1. Large crabgrass growing in a thin lawn. Photo by Erin C. Hill, MSU.

Identifying grasses can be very tricky, but taking clear photos (Photo 1) of key features can help speed along the process. Check out these steps to get the most out of your grass ID requests with Ask Extension, Michigan State University Extension, Michigan State University Plant & Pest Diagnostics and beyond.

Set your phone or camera to the highest resolution setting possible (iOS, Android). When submitting electronically, send the largest size. This helps your identifier zoom in on particular features of the photo (Photo 2).

Screenshot of photo size settings on a phone.
Photo 2. Select the largest size when emailing a photo to your identifier. Photo by Erin C. Hill, MSU.

Examine the clarity of your photos; being in focus is important. Identifiers do not have special software to improve blurry or low-resolution photos. Sometimes having your fingers or hand in the photo near the feature you are trying to capture can help your camera focus.

Take a photo of your grass in the landscape. The distribution may provide insights to the identification and surrounding vegetation and features may be helpful if management information is desired (Photo 3).

Landscape view of grass next to a greenhouse.
Photo 3. Landscape views are important. Here we see bermudagrass growing against a greenhouse. Photo by Erin C. Hill, MSU.

Choose a background that is a solid, contrasting color for the suggested close-up photos that follow (e.g., the sky, dark colored pant legs, paper sack, hard cover book, printer paper, etc., Photo 4). Black and dark blue are often good colors for green plants, but any color that is high contrast will do. If the light outdoors is too bright, consider moving your photo session inside. Finally, including a ruler in the photo can also sometimes be helpful to show your identifier relative size.

Side by side photos of a hand holding a blade of grass.
Photo 4. Backgrounds are important! See the difference here between a stem of creeping bentgrass photographed against the lawn versus a black cloth. Photo by Erin C. Hill, MSU.

Dig out one or more plants, knock off the soil (or even better, wash it off) and take photos of the roots and underground structures (Photo 5).

Windgrass on a black cloth.
Photo 5. Windgrass has a fibrous root system and no other underground structures, like rhizomes. Photo by Erin C. Hill, MSU.

Photograph the collar region located where the leaf blade meets the sheath (i.e., main stem). This is where you will typically find a thin membrane or fringe of hairs, though sometimes there is no ligule (i.e., absent). Some grasses also have little lobed structures that hug the stem called auricles (Photo 6).

Closeup of several grasses.
Photo 6. A closeup of the grass’ collar region will show the ligule type and whether or not auricles are present; both important identifying features. Photo by Erin C. Hill, MSU.

Capture the new leaves emerging from the sheath (Photo 7).

Closeup of grass blades.
Photo 7. Showing how the leaves emerge from the sheath can help with identification. Annual bluegrass leaves are folded in the sheath, not rolled like some other grasses. Photo by Erin C. Hill, MSU.

Get a shot of the entire leaf blade, including the very tip (Photo 8).

Blade of grass next to a ruler.
Photo 8. Entire leaf blade of tall fescue with a ruler for size reference. Photo by Erin C. Hill, MSU.

If flowers or seedheads are present, photograph those as well. For less common species, this may be required as most grass keys that identifiers use primarily describe the floral features (Photo 9).

Seedheads of foxtail plants.
Photo 9. Seedheads of giant foxtail (left), yellow foxtail (center), and green foxtail (right). Photo by Erin C. Hill, MSU.

Record any other features you think look distinct (Photo 10).

A hand holding a giant foxtail.
Photo 10. Some grasses will have distinct features that are helpful to capture, like these hairs on the leaf blades giant foxtail. Photo by Erin C. Hill, MSU.

Michigan has hundreds of species of grasses, so even with the best photos, grass identification may still not be possible without a physical sample and the presence of flowers or seed.

Thank you to Angie Tenney for her review of this article.


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