Crested wheatgrass
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Drawing of crested wheatgrassCrested wheatgrass
Agropyron cristatum

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Since its introduction, crested wheatgrass has been planted on millions of acres throughout the Great Basin!

What is crested wheatgrass?
Crested wheatgrass was intentionally introduced by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture from Russia and Siberia in 1906. It has a number of relatives that are generically called crested wheatgrass. Two of these are desert wheatgrass (Agropyron desertorum) and Siberian wheatgrass (Agropyron fragile). Some relatives can cross to form hybrids. Along with its cousins, crested wheatgrass has been planted throughout most of the western U.S. The use of crested wheatgrass has been highly controversial, and it has been described as both hero and villain.

 

Crested wheatgrass seed heads

What are its characteristics?
This cool-season perennial bunchgrass grows 1-3 feet tall. Seed heads are flattened vertically, with compact overlapping spikelets (see Grass Morphology page). Each seed has a short awn. It grows quickly and supplies good forage. Crested wheatgrass seedlings are hardy, plants are cold and drought tolerant, and roots normally penetrate 3-6 feet into the soil.

Its ability to acquire water and nutrients make it competitive with both weeds and native plants. Compared to bluebunch wheatgrass, crested wheatgrass acquires water and nutrients more efficiently, is quicker to recover from grazing, and is able to produce more leaves and seed heads per plant.

What is its value to the Great Basin?
In many areas crested wheatgrass is now vital to livestock and wildlife for food and cover. It has been used extensively in the Conservation Reserve Program, and in revegetating burns and other degraded areas. It provides excellent erosion control and has characteristics that make it preferred by livestock producers. Moderate grazing (up to 65% utilization) helps crested wheatgrass maintain healthy stands.

Crested wheatgrass plantCrested wheatgrass germinates earlier and grows more rapidly at lower temperatures than native perennial bunchgrasses. It is fire tolerant, and stands are better adapted to the cheatgrass/fire cycle than native species. Crested wheatgrass has been used to "greenstrip" or provide a fuel-break to help control the spread of wildfires.

What is its restoration potential?
Crested wheatgrass provides fast and effective erosion control, is resilient under grazing pressure, easy to establish, and successfully competes against many exotic weeds. The seeds of crested wheatgrass are easy to collect and plant with standard equipment, and good germination and seedling growth lead to excellent stand establishment.
The dark side of crested wheatgrass is manifest through grass monocultures that can develop when it is used. Crested wheatgrass may crowd out native forbs and grasses. Shrub seedlings also find it hard to penetrate crested wheatgrass territory.

Images:
-Drawing: Cindy Roché © Utah State University, 2006.
-Seed head: Intermountain Herbarium.
-Plant: Louis-M. Landry © 2005.
-Sidebar photo: Southwest Regional Gap Analysis Project. Field site database. (http://earth.gis.usu.edu/swgap/trainingsites.html, 26 September 2006).

Text references:
-USDA, NRCS. 2006. The PLANTS Database (http://plants.usda.gov, 26 September 2006). National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA.
-Utah State University, Extension. 2006. Range Plants of Utah website (http://extension.usu.edu/rangeplants/index.htm, 26 September 2006).
-Zlatnik, Elena. 1999 Agropyron cristatum. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: (http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/, 26 September 2006).

Image of a field of crested wheatgrass