Sometimes, science is about rigorous determination and iron-willed patience. Sometimes, it’s about licking things. How else would you discover that a sparkling grass in the Australian outback tastes like salt and vinegar?
Scientists from the University of Western Australia have been working in the sweaty Outback cataloging its native grass species. Their study, recently published in Australian Systematic Botany, describes how their expedition discovered eight new species of perennial grass.
One of these was an odd grass they spotted sparkling at sunset. As the evening went on, their discovery got even weirder.
“We were doing late night experiments... handling specimens of that species," researcher Dr Matthew Barrett told ABC News. "Someone licked their hand at some point and tasted that flavor."
"It looks pretty inconspicuous when you first get to it, but if you look at it very closely it has very, very minute sparkling droplets on the stems," he added.
"When you lick them, they taste like salt and vinegar chips."
The two taste-tested grass species are Triodia scintillans and Triodia vanleeuwenii. According to the team's study, the grasses have “noticeable droplets that we observed to sparkle in sunlight in the field. These droplets can remain a viscous liquid or become crystalline following specimen drying, and they can even be observed on older herbarium material, depending on the quality of the material at the time of collection.”
There are 64 known Triodia species in Australia. They are known by the common name spinifex, although they are not actually a part of the coastal genus Spinifex. Many of the species have water or resin droplets on their leaves. They are often in such high quantities the liquid can drip down the stems and leaves on hot days. It’s believed this property is to help the grasses survive the Outback's arid and dry environment. It also makes them well-adapted to survive wildfires, another common threat in the Australian wilderness.
But remember, not all science is meant for licking (image below). Even Anderson himself warns, you probably shouldn't go around licking all the grasses you see, for obvious reasons.