Needle and Thread Grass

Another grass growing interspersed with the Indian ricegrass (Oryzopsis hymenoides)   that I mentioned in my last post is needle and thread grass (Stipa comata). Both these grasses were photographed along California Highway 139 near the Oregon border.

Needle and thread grass is a perennial bunchgrass (grows in single plant tufts) that is well adapted to droughty soils. This native grass can be found in open areas from the western edge of the Mojave Desert north and east along the eastern slopes  the Sierra Nevada and Cascades to the Great Plains. Needle and thread grass usually does not grow in dense stands.

Grasses in the Stipa genus have awns with one or more bends. (Simply, awns are the bristlelike appendages attached to the seeds.) Needle and thread grass has awns that are stout, prominent, long and bent once, occasionally twice.  When the seed is mature and released the awns are tightly twisted near the seed head. The seed itself is sharp and pointed, like a spear. The awn is hygroscopic and bends with changes in humidity. When the humidity increases the untwisting of the awn drills the pointed seed into the ground. This “drilling” is not subtle. Leonard recently planted some needle and thread seeds. Immediately upon watering the awns began to turn and auger the seeds into the soil.

Needle and thread grass is green early in the season and provides late winter and early spring forage for both wild and domesticated grazers, although later in the season it is unpalatable because the long awns can cause injury to eyes, ears and mouths. Later in the season if needle and thread grass is not protected from foraging during the flowering period seeds do not form and enough food reserves are not stored to insure survival of the plant.

Because of its strong root system, needle and thread grass is important and effective in erosion control.

Native Americans are reported to have used needle and thread awns as hair brushes. They would bind the stiff awns tightly together and burn off the seeds to make a brush. I cannot attest to this use. It seems to me that although the awns are strong and stiff they would not hold up to use as a brush.

Hesperostipa comata is another accepted scientific name for needle and thread grass.

Western needlegrass (Stipa occidentalis) is another stipa that I introduced previously.

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