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Landowners Guide to Native Grass Enhancement and Restoration

    6. Selected Native Perennial Grasses

by Mark Stromberg, Ph.D. Hastings Natural History Reserve, UC-Berkeley
and Paul Kephart, Rana Creek Habitat Restoration, Inc

       Nassella pulchra - Purple Needlegreass"
       Hordeum branchyantherum - California Meadow Barley
       Elymus glaucus - Blue Wild Rye
       Leymus triticoides - Creeping Wild Rye
       Deschampsia cespitosa - Tufed Hair Grass
       Bromus carinaturs - California Brome

Nassella pulchra or “Purple Needlegrass”

   California’s best known native bunchgrass, purple needlegrass occurs over most of the state. Tough basal leaves in this bunchgrass stay green most of the year. Roots extend down 20 feet and can tap the soil moisture in a drought so effectively that large, old plants can out-compete any nearby young plants. These plants clealy can live 200 yeas and maybe many hundreds more. Eventually, they space themselves relatively far apart so that all can survive droughts. Each year, mature plants produce a few seeds, shaped like a torpedo. Each seed has a long, thread-like awn attached, so the seed resembles a needle and thread. It grows well in dry, clay soils, on hillside and in forest openings. It thrives in deep, well-drained soils.










Close up of the “needle and thread” seeds of Nassella pulchra. The seed head has strong purple shading, and from a distance, the seed heads are clearly purple when young.










Hordeum brachyantherum or “California Meadow Barley”




    California meadow barley, although similar to squirrel tail, is surprisingly soft to the touch. Cattle will prefer this grass when it is available. This smaller bunchgrass can survive brief flooding and does well in wet soils. The flowers have a small awn and rapidly break off the main stem, leaving small tufts. The basal leaves are soft to the touch and turn golden brown in the summer, and even with additional water, do not stay green. This grass is relatively low in stature, growing ankle high in drier sites, and perhaps knee high in wet places.
   When dry, the top seeds blow off, leaving a small tuft at the base of each flower head. These distinctive tufts remain most of the winter.


Elymus glaucus
or “Blue Wildrye”




Blue wildrye is often found on the edge of an opening, in a transitional habitat between full sun and partial shade. A bunchgrass, it can grow to shoulder height, with long smooth, waxy stems. The basal leaves are of medium width and some turn brown and curl in the summers. The green stems slowly turn straw colored and the seeds fall in late summer.








Close up of seed heads of blue wild rye. Note smooth, large stem, and small seeds arranged in a distinct cylinder. When they break off, they lack the backward-pointing hairs of weedy grasses.












Leymus triticoides or “Creeping Wild Rye”

Creeping wild rye is low-growing (to 2 feet tall) mat-forming (rhizomatous) grass with blue-green leaves that thrives along creeks and seasonally wet soil. Most leaves lean away from the main stem, forming a complex of flags, stems and seeds. Each seed head has three flowers. Seeds are often sterile, as the plant primarily reproduces by underground runners. This grass can bind the soil into amazingly strong turf capable of withstanding erosion by fast-moving water.





Close up of seed heads and leaves. Notice how the leaves form a distinct angle between the stem and leaf (~45-75 degrees). This is very obvious, even from a distance (below).







Close up of plants, leaves.

Close up of flower
















Leymus triticoides in gulley. Even in the dry season, creeping wild rye will continue to be green.









Deschampsia cespitosa or “Tufted Hair Grass” or “California Hair Grass”












Photo (left). Some hairgrass do not have open flowers (D. cespitosa cespitosa)-at top.
The open form, (D. c. holciformis)-at bottom.

   Hair grass is most abundant along the coast, and can form almost continuous cover of adjacent bunches. This has been installed as lawns that, if near the coast, require no watering yet provide a delicate, very dense (if somewhat textured) lawn. There are two forms of this grass, but both have very fine leaves that are soft to the touch. One form has a spike of flowers that may reach to 2 feet and stays tightly closed (photo above; right). The other form has a similar bunch of basal leaves, but the spike of flowers opens and forms a bright, golden layer above the green leaves.

Bromus carinatus or “California Brome”








Photos: Flowers of Bromus carinatus. Note the flattened seedheads. In all cases, the seeds shatter very easily, leaving on a pair of glumes (paper-like, brown leaf-like flaps). Several seedhead have shattered in the flowers on the right.


   California brome is one of the most variable grasses found in California. It varies in height, color, fuzziness, and form across geographic areas, and between habitats (say, hot or dry) in one site. The seed heads are strikingly flattened. The leaves are broad and green, and most stay green well into the summer.
   Plant body grows to knee height, and keeps its bunch form. Other geographic races, for example those from the coast, remain prostrate and never grow much taller than ankle height. Seeds are relatively large and abundant. This grass grows rapidly and is a great choice to get native grass covering the ground quickly. However, it only lives a few years. It can serve as a quick-growing “nurse” grass to some of the longer-lived grasses like Purple Needlegrass or or Blue wildrye..