Instructor and contact information

Matt Lavin, 308 PBB (office in Plant Bioscience Building) and 408 Lewis Hall (MSU herbarium), email.
Lecture & Lab: Mondays 12:00-5:00 PM plus online
Locations: 307 Lewis Hall and perhaps field locations in Bozeman.
Office hours: Mondays 10:00AM-12N in 408 Lewis Hall and by appointment.
Course announcements posted to Brightspace by D2L.

Purpose of course

The Agrostology course provides students with a high level of hands on experience by working with specimens that represent 150-200 of the most common graminoid species in Montana and adjacent states. Students will work each species through dichotomous taxonomic keys with an emphasis on distilling the essential defining traits for each species, as well as for the genus and the family to which each species belongs. Students have the option of creating a reference collections of all graminoid specimens provided to them such that they have that collection for future reference after the course ends.

Course learning outcomes

Students will be able to: 1) relate botanical terminology with graminoid morphology in order to use dichotomous taxonomic keys; 2) identify ~150 of the most common graminoid species in Montana by combining sight identification with the use of dichotomous taxonomic keys; 3) use dichotomous taxonomic keys to distill the defining traits of graminoid families, tribes, genera, and species; 4) predict the generalized habitat of a graminoid species from its membership in a graminoid genus, tribe, or family.


A background in general botany including plant anatomy, morphology, physiology, and basic plant identification (e.g., as provided by BIOO 230, Identification of Seed Plants) or a high degree of interest in learning to identify grasses and grass-like species.

Items needed for this course

Text, required: Manual of Montana Vascular Plants, by Peter Lesica.
App, required: Montana Grasses at High Country Apps.
Hand lens (purchased at the MSU Bookstore, the Herbarium Supply Company, or at Amazon).
Forceps, needle, razor blade, or pocket knife for plant dissections.
Tape (or glue) and botanical paper (or any 8.5x11" paper) if you are making reference specimens.

Schedule of lecture-labs

26 August lecture (no lab): introduction to the class and to tribe Triticeae, wheatgrasses
2 September lecture and lab: Labor Day, no classes
9 September lecture and lab: tribe Triticeae, wheatgrasses
16 September lecture and lab*: tribe Stipeae, needlegrasses
23 September lecture and lab*: tribe Meliceae, oniongrasses and mannagrasses
30 September lecture and lab*: tribe Aveneae, oatgrasses
7 October lecture and lab*: tribe Poeae, bluegrasses, bromegrasses, fescuegrasses
14 October lecture and lab*:  forest understory grasses and review of the five principal cool-season grass tribes
21 October lecture & lab: 11:30 AM - 5:30 PM, Exam 1
28 October lecture and lab: introduction to warm season grasses - tribes Andropogoneae and Paniceae
4 November lecture and lab*: tribes Aeluropodeae and Eragrosteae
11 November lecture and lab: Veteran's Day, no classes 
18 November lecture and lab*: tribe Chlorideae
25 November lecture and lab*: tribes Aristideae, Arundineae, Danthonieae, Bambuseae, and Oryzeae
2 December lecture and lab*: grass-like plant families in Montana: Cyperaceae, Juncaceae, Typhaceae
10 December: 8 AM - 12 Noon, Exam 2 (date and time taken from the Fall 2019 Final Exams Schedule)
*Lab with a quiz. Each of the nine lab quizzes will involve the identification of 10-15 grass specimens from the previous week’s lab


Grades come from two exam scores each worth 1/3 of your final score and 8 (of 9) lab quizzes that are collectively worth 1/3 of your final score. Exams and quizzes comprise short answer questions (e.g., name the tribe, genus, and species). The two exams will each involve the identification of 75 specimens and the weekly quizzes 15 specimens each. Success in this class will be achieved by spending time in the lab and elsewhere studying as many graminoid species and specimens as possible and working them through taxonomic keys in a reverse and forward fashion and using a hand lens to study diagnostic traits.

Required Lab materials

Manual of Montana Vascular Plants, by Peter Lesica. The Montana Grasses app (the updated version released on 19 August 2019). A 10x hand lens. These and only these three items, including any notes you write directly on the pages of Lesica, can be used during all exams and quizzes.

Recommended lab items

  1. A Flickr Montana graminoid photo collection
  2. Cutting instrument (e.g., knife, scalpel, razor-blade), dissecting needle, or fine-pointed forceps
  3. 120+ sheets of 8-1/2" X 11 Botany paper for mounting lab specimens with scotch tape or Elmer’s Glue

Agrostology lab

Specimens of grass and grass-like species will be provided at a rate of 12 or more specimens per week. Important morphological and ecological features of the families, tribes, genera, and species will be emphasized. We will mostly key out many of the species during lecture and lab so plan to bring the Manual of Montana Vascular Plants to each lab. We will key out species in "reverse" fashion. You have the option of preparing study specimens on botany paper by taping or gluing your lab samples to sheets of paper and making notes with each specimen (attach more than one species on one piece of botany paper in order to economize on the size of your sample collection). You can finish this Agrostology course with a set of 120+ of the most common graminoid species, which can serve as a future reference collection for identification. Your collection will not be graded and you can arrange it in any manner you see fit. Ideally, you should mount multiple specimens per sheet of paper so that the size of your graminoid collection is minimal and therefore more useful. Putting related species on the same page accomplishes this and facilitates the comparison species-specific and genus-specific diagnostic traits. An exemplary reference specimen of Bromus japonicus was prepared by Dr. Jack Rumely (aka Herb Arium).

Relevant websites

  • The Wikipedia glossary of botanical terms is an excellent resource.
  • Online treatments of the graminoid families Cyperaceae, JuncaceaePoaceae, and Typhaceae (which doesn't include Sparganiaceae) for the Flora of North America.
  • High Country Apps develops plant identification apps for different regions of western North America, including Montana Grasses and Flora of the Yellowstone Region.
  • The Consortium of Pacific Northwest Herbaria is an image data base that includes the images of all Montana plant specimens housed at the Montana State University Herbarium and many other herbaria in the Pacific Northwest. This is an excellent tool for identifying plants and generating data files for species occurrences in the Pacific Northwest, which includes all of Montana.
  • USDA/NRCS PLANTS Database - this site is best accessed through a Google search of the scientific name because Google will correct any misspellings of scientific names.