Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

Idaho Fescue, or Blue Bunchgrass, FESTUCA IDAHOENSIS

from the the August 23, 2009 Newsletter, issued from the Siskiyou Mountains west of Grants Pass, Oregon:

Trees here are green but the forest's herbaceous understory is the color of old, dry hay, crisp and brittle. It's the late dry season so this is the way it's supposed to be. Sometimes when I see all the dry, curled-up grass in large serpentine barrens as I pass by I can't help but think that if someone down in the valley should set a match to it I'd be in a heap of trouble.

On many dry slopes about the only plant species in evidence is the straw-colored bunchgrass shown above.

That's Idaho Fescue, also called Blue Bunchgrass, FESTUCA IDAHOENSIS, a super-abundant and very important bunchgrass throughout most of western North America south of Alaska. Often it's described as typical of America's short-grass prairie but around here it's found in just about any dry, open, fairly natural environment. The clump in the picture has ridden downslope atop a mudslide at a roadcut; where it came from the ground was level and populated with hardly anything except more Idaho Fescue, acres and acres of it.

Lot of websites on the Internet sell Idaho Fescue because it's so drought tolerant and can be mowed. It's even pretty planted in a pot, where it's a lot lusher than the wild ones in the picture. A typical suggestion for its use describes "a xeriscape design along with Buffalo Grass and Blue Grama. Adding junipers, Rabbit Brush and Sage enhances such a design without compromising low maintenance." This is found at http://www.bluestem.ca/festuca-idahoensis.htm.

Below a close-up shows its 2/3-inch long (15 mm) spikelets:

Idaho Fescue, or Blue Bunchgrass, FESTUCA IDAHOENSIS, spikelet

What a pleasure identifying this species, sitting in the mountain sunlight cross-legged thrusting my mind into the flowers' geometry, their proportions, textures and designs. For example, a very closely related fescue also common in this area is the California Fescue, but its needle-like "awns" aren't nearly as long as shown here. Also, with a little imagination, at the base of the awns in the picture you can just barely see a roughness -- a "scabrosity," a botanists would be pleased to say. California Fescue lacks scabrosity there. With my handlens the scabrosity is clearly visible. Also, California Fescue's flower cluster, or inflorescence, is more open than Idaho's.

By the way, a clump of bunchgrass such as that in the picture can be called a "genet," a term used for any clonal colony -- where all the seeming individuals share the same genetic makeup because they derive from the same mother cell.