Digitaria cognata (Fall Witch Grass)

Plant Info
Also known as: Mountain Hairgrass, Carolina Crabgrass
Family:Poaceae (Grass)
Life cycle:perennial
Habitat:part shade, sun; dry, sandy soil; open prairie, open woods
Fruiting season:August - September
Plant height:1 to 2 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:none
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Cluster type: panicle

[photo of flowering cluster] Wispy, branching cluster, initially erect, up to 11 inches tall and 17 inches wide when fully expanded (typically much reduced), with wiry, widely spreading branches. Branches are mostly single with few divergent branches, often reddish, rough textured, with dense clusters of long, straight hairs in the axils, and a spikelet (flower cluster) at the tip of each branchlet.

[photo of spikelets] Spikelets are elliptic, 2.2 to 3.1 mm long, .7 to 1.1 mm wide, with a single sterile (lower) floret, a single fertile (upper) floret, and a pair of bracts (glumes) at the base. The lower glume is reduced to a tiny scale 1mm long or less, the upper glume is nearly as long as the spikelet, 1.8 to 2.8 mm long with 3 or 5 veins, smooth or with bands of fine, white, appressed hairs between the veins giving it a striped appearance. Each floret is surrounded by a pair of bracts (lemma and palea) though the sterile palea is typically absent. The sterile lemma is opposite the upper glume on the spikelet, and similar to upper glume except a little larger and with 7 veins. The fertile lemma and palea are alike, brown turning dark purplish brown, elliptic tapering to a pointed tip, and about as long as the sterile lemma.

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf type: simple

[photo of leaves on branching stems] Leaves are mostly along the branching stems, mostly ascending, mostly less than 4 inches long and ¼ inch wide. Surfaces are smooth or with fine, spreading hairs, the hairs sometimes with a swollen, pimple-like base (papillose).

[photo of sheath, ligule and node]  The sheath is open, forming a long “V” at the front, surfaces on upper sheaths are smooth or with sparse, spreading hairs; the lowest densely hairy with long, spreading hairs. There is often a lobe (auricle) at the tip on one side. The ligule (membrane where the leaf joins the sheath) is membranous, up to 1.5 mm long, hairless, straight or slightly jagged across the top. Nodes are mostly hairless and green to purplish. Stems are branching at the base, ascending to sprawling and may root at the nodes forming a dense clump. Often several non-flowering branches are at the base of fruiting branches.

Fruit: Fruit type: seed without plume

[photo of maturing spikelets] The entire cluster breaks off at maturity, blowing to new locations tumbleweed fashion. Grains (seeds) are straw-colored to brown, elliptic, 1.3 to 1.6 mm long.


Fall Witchgrass, formerly Leptoloma cognatum, is a species of dry, open, sandy sites. Minnesota is at the northwest edge of its range and it's only found in our easternmost border counties from Chisago down to Houston County. It is one of three similar purple tumbleweed grasses found in Minnesota, the other two are Purple Lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis) and Witchgrass (Panicum capillare). It can be distinguished from E. spectabilis by its single flowered spikelets, multiple branching stems and membranous ligule, where E. spectabilis has multiple florets in a spikelet, mostly just basal leaves, unbranched stems, and a dense cluster of long hairs about the ligule. P. capillare also has branching stems but is an annual and a much larger (taller), stout plant that is more uniformly densely hairy throughout, with larger, broader cornstalk-like leaves and more oval spikelets and fertile florets. Some references list multiple subspecies of D. cognata, but they are not recognized in Minnesota.

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka taken at Long Lake and Rice Creek Trail regional parks, Ramsey County. Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Houston County.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: Robert Dana - Wabasha Co
on: 2023-07-22 23:50:00

This grass is quite abundant in long-abandoned fields in the Kellogg-Weaver dunes in Wabasha Co.Not so much in the intact sand prairie there. I recall that Barb Delaney was once concerned that it had invasive tendencies and was expanding its range northward into the Anoka Sand Plain.

Posted by: Andy - Minneapolis
on: 2023-09-06 15:19:34

One of these popped up in a very dry/sandy area of the yard where nothing ever grows except for crabgrass. Even crabgrass only pops up there after a rain and then gets burned out shortly thereafter. So I figured this plant was more crabgrass--until it stayed healthy and kept growing through the summer drought. So I had to let it bloom to see what sort of super-weed had bested the crabgrass. Turns out it's this native fall witch grass! It fits all of the description exactly. Also, where this plant is growing is just west of the Bell Museum Herbarium records red dots on the map (the Ramsey County line is about 10 yards east of this plant). So it's definitely in its native area. How great that this very tough native grass has established in this very tough spot. It's bested the crabgrass. How cool is that.

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