Different Kinds Of Needlegrass: Tips For Growing Needlegrass Plants

Growing native plants is an excellent way to conserve water and rely less on pesticides and herbicides. Needlegrass is native to North America and provides important forage for many birds and animals. It is also useful as an ornamental with graceful seed heads and fine, arching leaves. Growing needlegrass plants in the garden helps reduce maintenance, too, since they are self-caring once established. See which one is right for your garden needs.

What is Needlegrass?

Needlegrass grows early in the season and retains greenery well into the cool period. It is a long lived perennial much prized to prevent erosion. It is also used to reestablish depleted green spaces. The grass provides cover for many animals and is high in protein when ingested early in the season.

There are even several needlegrass plant varieties found in different genus names with exceptional ornamental attributes that can be used in the garden such as:

  • Achnatherum
  • Aristida
  • Hesperostipa
  • Nassella
  • Stipa
  • Triraphis

The term ‘needlegrass” stems from the extremely fine blades grass, also called speargrass or wiregrass. It also refers to the short stiff hairs on the foliage which can irritate skin. Almost all areas of North America can call at least one or more species indigenous. The plants are cool season, clumping perennials. They grow anywhere from 6 to 60 inches (15 to 150 cm.) tall, with fibrous root systems and summer panicles of flowers followed by interesting and nutritious seedheads.

Needlegrass Plant Varieties

Because there are several kinds of needlegrass in different genera, it can be difficult to identify individual specimens. A clue comes in the form of their location. Some are warmer season plants such as Texas needlegrass, while others live in alpine locations like purple needlegrass. Still others, such as Chilean needlegrass, are native to Australia.

Below are some of the most common needlegrass plant varieties:

Purple needlegrass (Nassella pulchra) – Probably the most common and widespread, this needlegrass has pale purple seedheads and is found in California. There are two other native Nassella plants called needlegrass which are misidentified.

Letterman’s needlegrass (Achnatherum lettermanii) – Found in mountainous and woodland sites, this one is extremely important forage for mule deer, gopher and jackrabbits. This variety has pale cream seedheads.

Texas needlegrass (Nassella leucotricha) – Found in the South Texas plains, this needlegrass variety has attractive white seedheads.

Green needlegrass (Stipa viridula) – Native to the northern Great Plains, green needlegrass is commonly used in open range grazing. In spite of its name, it has yellow seedheads.

Thurber’s needlegrass (Stipa thurberiana) – Semiarid regions of northwest and up into Canada you will find a needlegrass variety having purplish seedheads – its name is Thurber.

Lemmon’s needlegrass (Achnatherum lemmonii) – More commonly found growing in north and western California, Montana, Utah, Arizona, and British Columbia, this type has large brown seedheads that are a favorite of birds.

Desert needlegrass (Achnatherum speciosa) – Native to Mojave and Colorado deserts, desert needlegrass was once a favorite food of indigenous people. Stems and seeds were eaten. It produces white seedheads.

Growing Needlegrass Plants

Most varieties thrive in United States Department of Agriculture zones 5 to 10 with little intervention. New plants should be kept moist. Once established, plants accommodate a fair amount of drought.

Other than wild animals grazing on the plant, it has few pest or disease issues. Plants need full sun, good drainage, and average soil fertility.

Cut plants back in early spring. Divide grasses every 3 years to improve growth and appearance. If you wish to prevent self-sowing, remove seed heads before they mature.

An Interview with Landscape Architect Terri McFarland

Foreground, left: Stipa pulchra (Purple needlegrass) in early winter. Background: CA native shrub Salvia mellifera (Black sage) in sky with assorted Mediterranean shrubs

Why use California native grasses in garden design? The easiest answer is our native grasses are beautiful! Adapted to our dry summers, they are a good low- or no-water choice for gardens. As a garden designer, I use grasses as a canvas upon which to compose showy drifts of flowers. On larger properties, restoration of native meadows can be an economical and appropriate understory for dry shade under oaks. Sweeping meadows draped over rolling landforms is a beloved feature of California.
As a professional landscape architect, I want to help tell the story of our native grasslands which according to the California Native Grasslands Association are among the most important yet most endangered ecosystems in the United States. The “oak savannah” is the quintessential California landscape, but today few pristine prairies remain due to development, poorly managed grazing, fire suppression, and exotic species. The ecological benefits of grasslands include erosion control, water recharge, biodiversity, habitat, and carbon capture.
The theory of “shifting baselines” posits that humans accept the degradation of ecosystems from generation to generation as the original baseline gets forgotten. If we don’t know what a healthy ecosystem looks like, how can we restore it? Gardeners who care for these species in home gardens, perhaps as a “museum” of endangered species, can help support the mission of CNGA to promote, preserve, and restore the diversity of California’s native grasses and grassland ecosystems. The resilience of our grasslands will be an essential component for adapting to climate change.

Spent flower stalks of Stipa pulchra (Purple needlegrass) with purple blooms of Triteleia laxa (Ithuriel’s spear)

What are the challenges of using native grasses in a garden? Weed control is the number one challenge when trying to establish native grasses. European annual grasses are very successful in out competing our native species. Even before these introduced species took over, indigenous persons used controlled burns to maintain open grasslands for grazing elks. Fire, grazing and meadows evolved together. Today, some ranches are having good success using cows to restore native grasslands, timing their grazing for exotic weed control. In a small backyard garden, an attentive gardener can easily manage weeds by hand-pulling. I have gotten very adept at distinguishing a weed from a native sprout by subtle differences in the shade of green or texture.

Another challenge is the dormant period which gardeners may think look “dead” rather than dormant. The grasses can be kept greener with irrigation, but I enjoy them in all phases. One strategy is to set dryer grasses within evergreen plants. I’m not a purist, and I also enjoy plants from other Mediterranean climates such as the classics - lavender, rosemary, sage. I also can’t resist lovely summer annuals such as zinnias, sunflowers, cosmos and poppies which keep the summer garden vibrant. While appreciating the ecological story of native grasslands, as a designer I use grasses as I would any other plant in my garden, placing them to show off the particular charms of each species.

Foreground: CA native Koeleria micrantha (Junegrass) Background: CA natives Stipa pulchra (Purple needlegrass) + Triteleia laxa (Ithuriel’s spear) with non-native Hollyhocks and Mexican Marigold

How much water do you use and how is it distributed? A big advantage of using California native grasses is that they are adapted for our dry summers, and once established, you won’t need to irrigate at all. California is called the “Golden State” for the color of dry grasslands. In your home garden, you can keep these grasses green with extra water, but I like to embrace the season cycles, and honor the plant’s adaptations. Having very deep roots to carry plants through dry periods has another important ecological benefit, that of carbon sequestration. Unlike burning forests which release tons of carbon into the atmosphere, burning grasslands keep most of their biomass in deep roots underground, and can quickly regenerate.

The “needles” of Stipa pulchra (Purple needlegrass) blowing in the wind. These will self-sow in the garden.

How long since your grasses have been planted? Were they from seed or from a nursery? I started using native grasses in my garden in 2003 with plugs of Stipa lepida (Foothill needlegrass) leftover from Quintessa Winery, a project in Napa Valley that I worked on with Lutsko Associates. This project restored an oak savannah that wraps the winery and includes native grass meadows on the roofs. These are still going strong in my garden with minimal if any summer water.

Over time, I’ve planted additional grass species from both seeds and plugs, sourced from Hedgerow Farms in Winters or Larner’s Seeds in Bolinas. Lately, I’ve been harvesting my own seeds for the magic of the seed-to-seed cycle. In addition to diversifying the grass species, I’ve been adding flowering native perennials. I was so pleased this spring when the first blooms of Aquilegia formosa (Western columbine) showed up 3 years after sowing.

CA native perennial wildflowers: Pink flowers of Sidalcea malviflora (Checkerbloom) w/ creamy white flowers of Erysimum concinnum (Point Reyes Wallflower) within green straps of Triteleia laxa (Ithuriel’s spear) and Stipa pulchra (Purple needlegrass)

Have you thought about native varieties that span the year so that every season has a different bloom?The joy of tending a garden is to connect more deeply with time, and to be fully present to life. I tap into this biophilia as I watch the sequence of grasses, beginning in winter with Stipa pulchra (Purple needlegrass) greening up with the first bit of rain. Early spring features the delicate flowers of Koeleria micrantha (Junegrass) one of my favorites with its soft blue-green foliage. Next come spikes of Festuca idahoensis (Idaho fescue) the most lawn-like of our natives. I also love the seeds of the melics (Melica californica, Melica torreyana) which look like metallic beads glowing in the shadier part of my garden. Another favorite moment is when the purple flowers of Triteleia laxa (Ithuriel’s Spear) nestle into the spent flower stalks of Stipa pulchra.

Baby hummingbirds nesting in CA native Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’ (California lilac)

What fauna have you observed? I have seen many birds, butterflies, and bees visit my garden. This spring, two hummingbirds hatched in the Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’ (California Lilac). On foggy mornings, I find cute little native bees napping in the sticky yellow flowers of Grindelia camporum (Central Valley Gum plant.) On “butterfly TV” last month, I saw about 10 butterflies floating between my and my neighbor’s yard, when a noisy mockingbird jumped on the fence angling to catch an orange Gulf fritillary. He missed, and all the butterflies immediately hid themselves. Seed-eating birds, such as California towhee, junco, golden crown sparrow or finch, stop by in fall to peck at grass seeds fallen in the soil. I’ve come to see the fauna as another design element in my garden – if I can make a little bird happy and fat, I’m doing something right!

Species list [partial] for Terri’s Potrero Hill garden:

California native perennial wildflowers:Achillea millefolium (White Yarrow)
Aquilegia formosa (Western columbine)
Asclepias fascicularis (Narrow-leaf milkweed)
Eschscholzia californica (California poppy)
Erysimum concinnum (Point Reyes Wallflower)
Grindelia camporum (Central Valley Gum plant)
Sidalcea malvilflora (Checkerbloom)
Sidalcea calycosa rhizomata (Pt. Reyes checkerbloom)
Sisyrinchium bellum (Blue-eyed grass)
Thalictrum fendleri (Foothill meadow rue)
Triteleia laxa (Ithuriel’s spear)

California native perennial bunchgrasses:
Festuca californica (California fescue)
Festuca idahoensis (Idaho fescue)
Koeleria micrantha (Junegrass)
Melica californica (California melic)
Melica torreyana (Torrey melic)
Stipa lepida (Foothill needlegrass)
Stipa pulchra (Purple needlegrass)

California Native Grasslands Association: www.cnga.org
California Native Plant Society: www.cnps.org
Hedgerow Farms: www.hedgerowfarms.com
Larner’s Seeds: www.larnerseeds.com

Terri McFarland is a Green Advocate Director on the Dogpatch-Northwest Potrero Hill Green Benefit District Board and serves on the GBD’s Biodiversity Committee. A California licensed landscape architect, she has been tending her garden in Potrero Hill since 1992. She worked for 18 years as a principal landscape architect at Lutsko Associates, a San Francisco-based firm known for using California native plants in contemporary design. She opened her solo practice in 2019, and teaches advanced landscape design classes at Merritt College in Oakland.

Foothill Wildflowers

Last week was peak wildflower time in our neighborhood. Most of the April bloomers are still going and the May ones have started up. I counted over a dozen species while I went for a run last weekend: Baby Blue Eyes in a few rather sparse patches (Nemophila menziesii), something I think is a white Nemophila (No Spot) Globe Lily (Calochortus albus), Mules Ears (Wyethia), two kinds of Lupine, scattered Brodiaea, two kinds of Dichelostemma, Ranunculus, some lovely thick patches of Mountain Phlox (Linanthus grandiflorus), a few Penstemon heterophyllus, Phacelia, Mimulus guttatus in the and a couple of little white flowers that I haven’t identified. It’s probably the most abundant that the flowers will be, but, more importantly, the annual grasses around them have started to dry out and the neighbors have begun to weed-wack everything.

Though, here I think the weed-wacking has an interesting effect, making it feel like the Lupine has been put into the penalty box or is in a cage match with the grasses. This used to be a vegetable garden, I remember seeing tomatoes when we first moved to the area. Now it’s a refuge for Lupine to shelter from the weed-wacking carnage of the outside world. Beautiful flower, unbeautiful fence. Built elements in our neighborhood tend to combine the forlorn with a certain rural charm.

It’s been a good year for Globe Lilies.

The most interesting wildflower in the area is Twining Snakelily, Dichelostemma volubile, a bulb that twines up other plants. I’m not sure why it surprises me so much to see a bulb that twines, but I find it fascinating. A very cool wildflower.

Update — On Memorial day I saw white Yarrow in full bloom, two kinds of Clarkia, a fair bit of Penstemon heterophyllus, Mimulus guttatus in full bloom in the ditches, some Mimulus aurantiacus, and the Buckeyes are about at peak. The April bloomers are done.
Update — June 20 everything is basically done. The Toyons are blooming, the occasional Penstemon or Clarkia has a flower, but everything else is done.

Low-growing varieties predominate in the Gobi, with many low shrubs. Convolvulus and tamarix are two common shrubs, both well-adapted to low temperatures and little water. Also known as bindweed, the convolvulus adds some color to the landscape, with funnel-shaped flowers in pale pink or white. Its growth takes a trailing form, reaching no more than 2 feet in height and spreading horizontally. Tamarix, also known as tamarisk or salt cedar, grows in dense thickets. In addition to its tolerance for cold temperatures and low moisture, the tamarix is extremely salt-tolerant. This hardiness makes it one of the few plants to survive in the "salt deserts" of the Junggar Basin region. Saltwort, also known as beachwort, is another of the extremely salt-hardy plants that you can find in the salt desert region. The sprawling shrub produces tiny yellow flowers and tolerates a range of moisture levels, from salty marshes to the dry habitat of the Gobi.

Bridle grass and needlegrass are among the grasses and herbs that thrive in the Gobi's extreme climate. Needlegrass survives by dint of its long, fibrous roots, which are particularly effective at absorbing and retaining what little moisture is available. Field wormwood also grows in the Gobi, primarily in the Alashan Plateau area to the southwest.

Danielle Hill has been writing, editing and translating since 2005. She has contributed to "Globe Pequot" Barcelona travel guide, "Gulfshore Business Magazine," "Connecting Lines: New Poetry from Mexico" and "The Barcelona Review." She has trained in neuro-linguistic programming and holds a Bachelor of Arts in comparative literature and literary translation from Brown University.


Palatability/nutritional value: Purple needlegrass has moderate protein value and is highly palatable to livestock and wildlife [66].

Cover value: No information

Purple needlegrass is used in restoration projects and established by transplants, drilled seed, or broadcasted seed [65]. Purple needlegrass has been used for competitive reseeding after prescribed burning of grasslands invaded by yellow starthistle (Centaurea solstitialis) and nonnative annual grasses [47]. One project in the Santa Monica Mountains used seeded and transplanted purple needlegrass, tussockgrass, California brome (B. carinatus), and smallflower melicgrass (Melica imperfecta) for replacement of ripgut brome [53]. Irrigation has been used to reduce purple needlegrass seedling mortality in summer [2].

Livestock grazing can increase purple needlegrass cover and reduce that of nonnative annuals [9,24]. One study noted a decrease in purple needlegrass cover from 65 to 10% with only several years of grazing exclusion. Large increases in cover have been reported for winter and spring grazing on sites studied in southern California. Grazing in spring may be more detrimental to mature individuals. However, because nonnative annuals are better adapted to development under their canopies than purple needlegrass, spring grazing generally increases purple needlegrass seedling establishment [6,45].

Davis and Sherman [18] studied the remaining population of Sonoma spineflower ( Chorizanthe valida), a plant listed by the state of California as endangered. The population is located in Marin County. The authors state that though grazing maintains purple needlegrass and reduces shrub invasion, it may be detrimental to Sonoma spineflower and other rare endemic forbs.

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