With the controversy over plastic straws and their negative effect on the environment running at fever pitch (what media has not run a story—or two or three!—on the subject over the last few weeks?), why not think back to the original drinking straw: plants!
Yes, for thousands of years, humans have used plants with hollow stems as drinking straws, often in order to drink only the liquid and not the sludge (let’s say water sources in former times were not nearly as limpid as those today).
The Original Drinking Straw
The name “straw” for the drinking tube we use actually comes from the fact that straw, that is, the cut stem of cereal grasses, was the original drinking straw. The stems of grasses are hollow, except at the nodes, so make great drinking straws if you cut them just above one node and below the one above.
You can still do this and, marketers are even now working on reintroducing dried and sanitized cereal stem straws (rye is best) as a plastic straw replacement. I don’t know that you’d want to make your own drinking straws from a straw bale picked up at a garden center (who know where it has been!), but you certainly can cut the fresh stem of any grass of appropriate dimensions and use it as a straw.
Other than harvesting cereal stems from a farmer’s field near you (do ask for permission, of course!), you could use wild grasses or even ornamental grasses from your garden.
Ryegrass (Lolium spp.), a common wild grass in most areas, was the precursor of the paper straw (that later morphed into the plastic one we know today) and was sold as a drinking straw in the late 1800s. You can probably find ryegrass growing in a field near you.
Common reed (Phragmites australis) is also a widespread grass you can use as a drinking straw.
Bamboo also makes a great drinking straw. Again, cut a section between two nodes, as their stems too are hollow except where two sections join together. There are all kinds of bamboos, literally hundreds of species, some far too large for straws, some too thin, but others are “just right,” including some of the Phyllostachys species. There are already dried, prepared bamboo straws on the market.
There is a long history, too, of using herbs with hollow stems, all in the carrot (Apiaceae) family, as straws and they actually flavor the drink. The best known is lovage (Levisticum officinale), which imparts a celery-like flavor to the liquid imbibed and is ideal with bloody Marys and tomato juice. Angelica (Angelica archangelica and other species), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata), also give flavored drinking straws. If you find their taste too intense, you can always candy them (soak them in cane sugar, then dry them) to give a sweeter flavor to drinks.
Lemon grass (Cymbopogon spp.) will also flavour drinks when used as a straw.
I would not recommend harvesting hollow stems from wild plants unless you know what you’re doing. The same Apiaceae family that provides lovage, angelica and fennel also includes hemlock (Conium maculatum) and other poisonous plants. And although generations of musicians have made flutes from the easily hollowed-out stems of elderberry (Sambucus spp.) and their stems could just as easily make straws, authorities today consider all parts of elderberry other than the flowers and cooked berries of certain species to be poisonous, so I would not recommend trying.
Most natural straws are going to be of the single-use variety. Not only do many simply start to disintegrate after use, but, being natural products, are subject to the buildup of microbes, some not terribly good for humans. Just drop them in the compost when you have finished with them.
Bamboo straws are longer lasting, but you still have to clean them thoroughly after each use.
Homegrown drinking straws: talk about sustainable!