Distichlis spicata (Saltgrass)

Plant Info
Also known as: Desert Saltgrass, Inland Salt Grass, Coastal Saltgrass
Family:Poaceae (Grass)
Life cycle:perennial
Habitat:sun; alkaline or saline soils; dunes, salt marshes, roadsides, railroads, waste areas
Fruiting season:July - August
Plant height:4 to 24 inches
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FACW MW: FACW NCNE: FACW
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: Flower shape: indistinct Cluster type: panicle Cluster type: raceme

Distichlis spicata; Salt Grass (female flowers) Raceme-like cluster up to 3 inches long, with 2 to 20 spikelets (flower clusters) usually crowded at the tip of the stem, and separate male and female flowers on different plants (dioecious). Spikelets are erect to ascending, flattened, lance-oblong tapering to a pointed tip, on a slender stalk. Male spikelets are 3/8 to 1 inch (10 to 25 mm) long with 5 to 20 florets, female spikelets 1/3 to about ½ inch (8 to 15 mm) long and 5 to 10 flowered.

[photo of spikelet] At the base of a spikelet is a pair of bracts (glumes) that are keeled, 3 to 9-veined, egg-shaped with a pointed tip, the lower glume 2 to 4 mm long, the upper glume 3 to 6 mm long. Florets are surrounded by a pair of bracts (lemma and palea), the lemma egg-shaped with a pointed tip and translucent papery edging, 3.5 to 7 mm long, awnless, obscurely veined, the palea as long as the lemma or nearly so, 2-keeled, the keels minutely hairy.

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

[photo of 2-ranked leaves and overlapping sheaths] Leaves are alternate, 2 to 4 inches long, up to about 1/8 inch wide, stiff, flat, hairless except for a few long, white hairs near the base, and arranged in 2 rows (2-ranked) on opposite sides of the stem, often with the sheaths overlapping. The lowest stem leaves are reduced to bladeless sheaths.

[photo of sheath, ligule and node] The sheath is open, green with translucent white edging, the edges overlapping near the tip, and hairless except for sparse long, white hairs around the tip. The ligule (membrane where the leaf joins the sheath) is about 1 mm long with a fringe of short hairs along the top edge. Nodes are hairless and sometimes barely swollen. Stems are leafy, unbranched, smooth, erect or the lower stem prostrate then rising (decumbent). Plants form colonies from creeping, scaly rhizomes, sometimes also with above ground runners.

Fruit: Fruit type: seed without plume

[photo of mature spikes] Spikelets turn straw-colored as they mature, the female florets dropping off individually, leaving the glumes behind to persist on the stalk. Male florets do not drop off and persist on the spikelet. Grains (seeds) are smooth and oval, 2 to 5 mm long.


Most grasses have perfect flowers, some have separate male and female flowers on the same plant (monoecious), and Saltgrass is one of the few with separate male and female flowers on separate plants (dioecious). This plus the 2-ranked leaves with overlapping sheaths, the rhizomatous growth, and the typically alkaline habitat make it fairly easy to identify. Some references separate coastal and inland populations into separate varieties, which would make the inland species found in Minnesota var. stricta, but these vars are not universally accepted.

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More photos

Photos by Peter M. Dziuk taken in Lac Qui Parle County and in North Dakota. Distichlis spicata; Salt Grass (female flowers) by Jorg & Mimi Fleige used under CC BY-NC 3.0.


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