Elymus virginicus (Virginia Wild Rye)

Plant Info
Also known as:
Family:Poaceae (Grass)
Life cycle:perennial
Habitat:part shade, sun; average to moist soil; woods, floodplain forest, river banks, shores, wet meadows
Fruiting season:July - September
Plant height:1 to 4 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FAC 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: spike

[photo of spike] A single erect spike 1½ to 6+ inches long at the tip of the stem, with a pair of erect to slightly ascending spikelets (flower clusters) at each node. Each spikelet is 10 to 15 mm long (excluding awns) and usually has 3 or 4 florets, occasionally more or less; the uppermost floret may be sterile. Color is green to blue-green at flowering time, sometimes covered in a waxy bloom (glaucus). The base of the spike is often enclosed in the uppermost leaf sheath.

[close-up of spikelet] At the base of a spikelet is a pair of bracts (glumes), both firm, hairless, minutely toothed along the edges near the tip, 3 to 5-veined, narrowly lance-linear tapering at the tip to a straight awn shorter than the body, .7 to 2.3 mm wide, 10 to 30 mm (to 1+ inch) long including the awn, the base thickened, hardened for up to 4 mm, often strongly bowed. Florets are surrounded by a pair of bracts (lemma and palea), the lemma usually hairless, 5 to 7-veined, the body 8 to 10 mm long with a straight awn 5 to 25 mm long; the palea is about as long as the lemma, hairless, 2-veined.

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

[photo of sheath, ligule and node] The 4 to 9 leaves are alternate, up to 12 inches long, up to 15 mm (~½ inch) wide, mostly flat, sometimes rolled along the edge (involute), usually hairless, smooth or rough-textured, fairly evenly distributed along the stem, and arching to floppy. The sheath is usually hairless and has a pair of small brown to purplish lobes (auricles) at the apex. The ligule (membrane where the leaf joins the sheath) is less than 1 mm long, more or less straight across, and lacks a fringe of hairs. Nodes are hairless and may be glaucus. Stems are unbranched, smooth, usually erect, multiple from the base forming loose to dense clumps, and sometimes glaucus.

Fruit: Fruit type: seed without plume

[photo of glumes, immature and mature florets] The awns remain straight as spikelets mature, all turning straw-colored to bleached tan when dry. Florets drop off individually as they mature, the glumes also dropping off often with the lowest floret, leaving the node stubs all along the stalk.


There are 10 Elymus species in Minnesota (not counting vars/subspecies); Virginia Wild Rye is one of the most common in the state, present in all but a few counties. It is commonly found in moist, wooded habitats such as floodplain forest, river and stream banks, less often in open prairies, meadows or roadsides.

Elymus virginicus is distinguished by its erect spike, the base often partially enclosed in the uppermost sheath; 2 spikelets per node; usually 3 or 4 florets per spikelet; glumes and lemmas both awned and usually hairless, sometimes glaucus; both glumes nearly equal in size, .7 to 2.3 mm wide (widest glumes 1+ mm), thickened and often distinctly bowed at the base; florets and glumes both drop off at maturity; 4 to 9 leaves that are floppy, hairless, up to about 15 mm wide.

There are 4 vars of Elymus virginicus, though not all are universally recognized: var. intermedius, has hairy spikelets and is usually glaucus; var. virginicus spikes are usually partially sheathed, glumes to 2.3 mm wide, glume base is hardened for up to 4 mm and strongly bowed, plants are not glaucus; var. jejunus spikes are not sheathed, glumes to 1.5 mm wide, glume base hardened for 1 mm and not strongly bowed, plants usually at least somewhat glaucus; var. halophilus spikes not sheathed, glumes to 1.5 mm wide, glume base hardened for up to 2 mm, leaves only up to 9 mm wide, plants often strongly glaucus. Only vars virginicus and jejenus are considered to be in Minnesota; var. virginicus is likely the more common of the two.

Most Elymus species in Minnesota have nodding spikes; of those with erect spikes, most similar is Awnless Wild Rye (Elymus curvatus), which was once lumped with E. virginicus (var. submuticus). It also has 2 spikelets per node, glumes that are bowed at the base and drop off at maturity, but has very short awns, not more than 4 mm long, the glume tips typically extending beyond the tip of the florets (including any awns).

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More photos

Photos by Peter M. Dziuk taken in Chisago, Fillmore and Renville counties, and in his garden.


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