Kāśa grass – which grows wild, and in abundance – is a not much cared for today. Nurseries, purveyors of such exotic wonders as ponytail palm imported from foreign shores at great cost, stock a distant relative, purple pampas grass (source: northern Andes), but certainly not the common kāśa. They do not see the beauty of a large swathe of tall white flowers rippling in quick succession beside the Kaveri. Sanskrit poets, luckily, do.
सा मङ्गलस्नानविशुद्धगात्री गृहीतपत्युद्गमनीयवस्त्रा।
निर्वृत्तपर्जन्यजलाभिषेका प्रफुल्लकाशा वसुधेव रेजे॥
Sā maṅgala-snāna-viśuddha-gātrī gṛhīta-paty-udgamanīya-vastrā |
Nirvṛtta-parjanya-jal’-ābhiṣekā praphulla-kāśā vasudh’ eva reje ||
Her body fresh from the customary bath and robed in a bleached white dress for her husband, Parvatī shone just like the earth cleansed by rain – just now ceased – and swathed in blooming kāśa grass.
7.11 Kumārasaṃbhava, Kālidāsa
The kāśa flower also does for Lady Ṥarad’s dress when she too arrives like a newly wed bride, after the departure of the rains. In the Raghuvaṃśa the kāśa forms śarad’s chowrie, although not even that coupled with the white puṇḍarīka lotus as a royal umbrella, can outshine the king.
The word kāśa is connected to the idea of appearance and from that splendour. Often the kāśa flower appears as a byword for whiteness; an autumnal cloud, for instance, is ‘kāśa-white’. It can also represent the whitening of hair with age. In the Rāmacarita, the river banks put forth white kāśa-hair so worried are they for Rāma, desperately mourning his lost Sītā. Elsewhere the flowers are the greying hair of the monsoon itself as it nears the end of its allotted time. According to Monier Williams, kāśa grass is one of Yama’s attendants, along with kuśa grass.
The Amarakośa gives only two synonyms for kāśa: ikṣugandha (or –gandhā) and poṭagala. Ikṣu-gandha literally means ‘that which has the scent of sugarcane’ which might be linked to the name ‘wild sugarcane’. Neither sugarcane nor kāśa have a noticeable smell, though, and it is the similarity of their appearance that probably gave rise to the English name. A further synonym – unattested by Monier Williams or Apte – ‘kāśekṣu’ (‘kāśa-sugarcane’) also suggests a link.
Modern Indian names include:
– Hindi: kās, kuś (which suggests that kāśa and kuśa are easily mixed up), kāṃsa, kilaka
– Bengali: kāś, keśoghās, keśor, keśe
– Marathi: kasaī, kāsegavat, kasāḍ
– Gujarathi: kāṃsaḍo
– Tamil: pēkkarimpu
– Mal: kuśa, ñāṅṅaṇa
The plant is identified as Saccharum spontaneum and is know in English as thatch grass as well as wild sugarcane.
The Pandanus database of Indian plants describes it as:
A tall perennial grass up to 6m high, conspicuous white inflorescence, grows in marshlands all over India up to 1800m elevation