Festuca trachyphylla (Hard Fescue)

Plant Info
Also known as: Sheep Fescue, Long-leaved Fescue
Family:Poaceae (Grass)
Life cycle:perennial
  • Weedy
Habitat:sun; dry soil; roadsides, waste places, fields, lawns
Fruiting season:July - August
Plant height:8 to 30 inches
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: UPL MW: FACU NCNE: UPL
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

Pick an image for a larger view. See the glossary for icon descriptions.

Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: indistinct Cluster type: panicle Cluster type: spike

[photo of flowering panicles] Panicle at the top of the stem, straight to slightly nodding, 1 to 5+ inches long, the branches usually erect to ascending, sometimes spreading, with 1 or 2 branches per node, the lowest branches with 2 or more spikelets (flower clusters). Spikelets are short-stalked, usually green at flowering time, 5 to 10 mm (to ~3/8 inch) long, flattened, lance-elliptic in outline and have 3 to 7(8) florets; the floret at the tip may be sterile.

[close-up of spikelets] At the base of a spikelet is a pair of bracts (glumes), both awnless, hairless, shorter than the spikelet, pointed at the tip, not keeled, the lower glume 2 to 3.5 mm long and 1-veined, the upper glume 3-veined, 3 to 5 mm long. Florets are surrounded by a pair of bracts (lemma and palea), the lemma obscurely 5-veined, not keeled, 3 to 5.5(6.5) mm long excluding a straight awn less than 3 mm long, the lowest lemma as long as or somewhat larger than the upper glume; the palea is about as long as the lemma, 2-veined, minutely hairy across the tip end. Stamen tips (anthers) are 2 to 3+ mm long. Sterile florets are like the fertile but underdeveloped.

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

[photo of basal clump] Leaves are mostly basal, folded, 4 to 12 inches (to 30 cm) long, to 1.2 mm wide (2.4 mm when flattened), have 3 to 7 conspicuous ribs, are hairless or minutely hairy near the base or on the ribs. Basal sheaths are conspicuous, persistent, green soon dying and drying tan, and do not shred into fibers. Sheaths of new shoots (tillers) are green, mostly hairless, and the edges fused for less than 1/3 of their length (closed sheath), often open with the edges overlapping nearly to the base.

[photo of stem leaf, ligule and node] The 1 or 2 stem leaves are usually folded, rarely flat, and shorter than basal leaves. The ligule (membrane where the leaf joins the sheath) is up to .5 mm long, usually higher on the ends than in the middle, and lacks a fringe of hair. Nodes are hairless and exposed. Stems are hairless, multiple from the base, mostly erect. Plants form dense clumps with a mass of fibrous roots and no rhizomes, the new shoots all emerging erect from the basal sheaths (intravaginal).

Fruit: Fruit type: seed without plume

[photo of glumes and florets] The panicle branches are typically erect when spikelets mature, drying straw-colored to light brown. Florets drop off individually as they mature, leaving the glumes persisting on the stalk. Grains (seeds) are brown, oval-elliptic.


Hard Fescue, sometimes known as Festuca ovina var. duriscula or F. brevipila, has been widely planted as turf grass and for soil stabilization. It is likely far more common in Minnesota than herbarium records indicate. Outside of cultivation it is likely found in the disturbed soils of roadsides and waste places, usually in dry, open ground. Our photos were taken at a Ramsey County park, where it was probably planted many years ago. Introduced from Europe, its native habitat is open forest and forest edges.

F. trachyphylla is generally distinguished by having dense clumps of fine leaves; sheaths of tillers (new shoots) mostly hairless and closed for not more than 1/3 of their length (frequently open nearly to the base); basal sheaths persistent, prominent and not shredding into fibers; leaves mostly basal, folded, .5 to 1.2 mm diameter (to 2.4 mm when flattened); panicle branches usually erect, sometimes spreading; spikelets with 4 to 7 florets, lemma awns usually less than 3 mm long; anthers 2 to 3+ mm long. Foliage is typically green but some cultivars have blue-green leaves. Leaves have 3 to 7 distinct ribs, but it's difficult to flatten the leaves to see this. Magnification is required.

There are 3 narrow-leaved Festuca species in Minnesota, the others are the native F. saximontana and non-native F. rubra, and they can be difficult to distinguish. F. rubra is the only one of the three that has rhizomes, reddish basal sheaths, old sheaths shredding into fibers, tiller sheaths closed for at least 75% of their length, and extravaginal shoots where new shoots break through the sheath and grow horizontally for a bit before rising up, but these traits are not so obvious without digging some out and careful picking through the clump.

F. saximontana and F. trachyphylla are more difficult to separate, but F. saximontana tends to be a less robust plant with smaller clumps, spikelets commonly with only 3 or 4 florets, though can have as many as 7, smaller anthers consistently less than 2 mm long, leaves with only 1 distinct rib, the 2 or 4 lateral ribs obscure or absent, and tiller sheaths closed for 1/3 to half their length. The folded leaves are very difficult to flatten out to see the ribs; try rolling a leaf around your finger, or folding a stem leaf down near the base to see the upper surface. Magnification is required in any case. Tiller sheaths are easier to check and are best seen while they're still green and relatively fresh, though magnification is also needed. By gently pulling a tiller apart from the top of a sheath, you can usually see where the sheath edges overlap and the point where they become fused, but this is easier to see under a dissecting microscope.

A characteristic of Festuca species is what's known as “sclerenchyma strands”, which are clusters of hardened, dead cells that run the length of the leaf just under the surface, the shape and arrangement of which are fairly distinct for each species. These cannot be seen with the naked eye and requires putting a cross-section of the leaf under a microscope. Try as I might I was not able to get a photo of this myself, but some images are out there in the web universe and Flora of North America has some illustrations online that are helpful, in case you are able to get a leaf under a scope to see for yourself. Festuca rubra has small round to elliptic strands, one at each edge, 3 to 5 on the lower leaf surface, 1 opposite each vein. F. saximontana and F. trachyphylla strands may run along most or all of the lower surface as a continuous or interrupted band.

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka taken in Ramsey County.


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