bunchgrass

The term “bunchgrass” refers to types of grasses that grow in tufts or bunches from a single root system. As the stems of bunchgrasses grow up and outward from a narrow base, they form an “umbrella” protecting the base and root system from sun and evaporation. In a similar manner, the stems act as a funnel to channel moisture into the centre and down into the root system.

A photograph of bunch grass in the spring. Click to enlarge,
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bunchgrass in the spring. B8278-CH-0706.pano-o3-lm ©Chris Harris

Because of these characteristics, bunchgrasses are particularly well-adapted to the very dry conditions found in the valleys and high plateaus west of the Coastal Mountains.

Bluebunch Wheatgrass Pseudoroegneria spicata (Agropyron spicatum)
Bluebunch Wheatgrass is an erect, bunch-forming, densely tufted perennial with fibrous roots. It can grow up to one hundred and thirty centimeters in height and cover up to one and a half square metres in surface area. Its leaves are blue-green in colour, giving the species its name. The individual spikelets are separated from each other and are found on alternating sides of the stem. The species of Bluebunch Wheatgrass found in British Columbia usually does not have bristles (called “awns”) on its spikelets, therefore, some classify it as a sub-species (Agropyron spicatum var. inerme).

Bluebunch Wheatgrass was the predominant species of bunchgrass at the time of first contact between Natives and white people. It is still found in the driest moisture regimes and lowest elevations of the region. It starts growing early in the spring and is fully grown by late June.

Rough Fescue
Festuca campestris (Festuca scabrella)

Rough Fescue is an erect, densely tufted perennial bunchgrass with flowering stems that can grow to a height of one metre, and bunches that can cover up to 0.8 square metre of ground surface.

A photograph of blue bunch wheatgrass in the fall.Click to enlarge,
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Bluebunch wheatgrass in the fall C3554-CH-1006-om ©Chris Harris

Rough Fescue is generally found at a higher elevation than Bluebunch Wheatgrass. At lower altitudes it is confined to north- and east-facing slopes. The species is also more abundant in slightly damper moisture regimes than Bluebunch Wheat Grass. As a result, where altitude and moisture increase, Rough Fescue replaces Bluebunch Wheat Grass as the dominant species.

Idaho Fescue (Festuca idahoensis)
Idaho Fescue (also called Bluebunch Fescue or Bluebunch grass) is a smaller species. The bunches, which are reddish at the bases, are more compact, and the flowering stems grow to a maximum 90 centimetres high. Like Rough Fescue, Idaho Fescue is found more commonly on the moister upland sites and is confined on the north- and east-facing slopes.

Giant Wild Rye (Elymus cinereus)
Giant Wild Rye is a very tall bunchgrass which grows up to two metres high. It is characterized by its distinctive greyish-blue tufts and is found along riverbanks, ravines, and moist slopes. Because of its extreme size and coarseness, cattle do not use Giant Wild Rye as forage.

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