Leonard loves grasses! Since he is so wonderful about patiently waiting while I chase after my latest flower or bird, it is time to reward him with a grass post.
The stipas are a group of perennial grasses that grow in tufts. Because their inflorescences (flower clusters) become fluffy looking upon maturity, many of the stipas are quite attractive. Like numerous grass species, stipas are also often difficult to identify. One stipa that is recognized by the double bend in its awn (the wiry appendage on the seed) is western needlegrass (Stipa occidentalis var californicum).
The scientific names of grasses seem to change as often as the weather. Western needlegrass also has been recently classified as Stipa californica and Achnatherum occidentale ssp californium. However, CalFlora currently is using S. occidentalis. To add further confusion, western needlegrass is also commonly know as California stipa and California needlegrass, among other names. I was always taught scientific names were meant to prevent confusion!!
Since grasses have their own morphology and corresponding vocabulary, I am not going to delve into a detailed description of western needlegrass. Grass parts can be the topic of a future post during the long winter months.
It is interesting though that the seeds are augered into the ground by their awns. That appendage on the end of the seed twists and untwists with humidity changes and digs the seed deep into the soil where it can germinate and where it is protected from foraging birds and mammals.
Western needlegrass grows in open areas among timber or on rocky slopes above 4,000′. It is well adapted to droughty conditions and rarely occurs in dense stands. It greens early in the spring and provides some of the first forage grazing of the season for animals. Its palatability is good before the seeds mature. With deep-reaching, fibrous, spreading roots western needlegrass is resistant to trampling and it also competes well against non-native invading grasses. Since palatability is low after maturation, animals do not eat western needlegrass late into the fall. Thus it is not overgrazed. Once soils are disturbed, western needlegrass invades quickly and because of its strong root system helps prevent erosion. In addition, birds, particularly sparrows, and small mammals, including chipmunks, eat the seeds. A very beneficial grass!
These western needlegrass plants were near Medicine Lake (Siskiyou County CA).