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Home>Plant Species>Native Species>Bluebunch wheatgrass

drawing of bluebunch wheatgrass Bluebunch wheatgrass
Pseudoroegneria spicata (Agropyron spicatum, Elymus spicatus)

question markDid you know?

Bluebunch wheatgrass gets its name from its comparatively blue-green color and “wheat-like” appearance. 

What is bluebunch wheatgrass?
Bluebunch wheatgrass is a perennial bunchgrass. It is a major component of sagebrush communities and is one of the more widely distributed and useful species native to the Great Basin. Both Washington and Montana lay claim to it as their state grass.

Image of bluebunch wheatgrass seed head

What are its characteristics?
Bluebunch wheatgrass grows in a variety of habitats, but is found mostly in well-drained, medium to coarse textured soils. Its deep fibrous root system adapts this drought-resistant grass to an average annual precipitation of 12-14 inches. Seeds clearly alternate within the seed head, giving it a “wheat-like” appearance. There are “bearded” and “beardless” bluebunch wheatgrass subspecies, referring to whether or not awns are present on the floret (See Grass Morphology page). Height at maturity is 1-4 feet. Leaves can remain green throughout the growing season with adequate moisture, and nutritional value remains good in the fall. Regeneration is by tillers and periodic seedling establishment.

Vigorous stands of bluebunch wheatgrass usually indicate well managed rangelands. It is susceptible to overgrazing and is particularly stressed by repeated early grazing. Appropriate management provides periodic rest from grazing, allowing plants to retain vigor as well as set seed. Following rest from grazing, cattle can be reintroduced and their trampling can effectively “plant” the seeds. Occasional seed production and seedling establishment is important for having different-aged individuals in a community.

image of bluebunch wheatgrassWhat’s its value to the Great Basin?
The palatability of bluebunch wheatgrass is excellent, and it can be a large part of the diet of deer, elk and cattle. Golden colored stands of dried bluebunch provide good winter feed to livestock and wild grazers. Historically, bluebunch wheatgrass was more dominant in the grassland and sagebrush ecosystems of the West. Grazing pressure and introduced species, particularly cheatgrass, have decreased its abundance.

What is its restoration potential?
Unlike the exotic crested wheatgrass that is often used for restoration in place of bluebunch, established bluebunch wheatgrass allows for natural encroachment of other native species. Unfortunately, this makes bluebunch stands more susceptible to invasive weeds. Bluebunch wheatgrass establishes quickly for a native bunchgrass, but seedlings are weaker than crested wheatgrass and have a harder time establishing under weed dominance. Different varieties of bluebunch wheatgrass are being tested for use in restoration, and show mixed potential.

Images:
-Drawing: USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Hitchcock, A.S. (rev. A. Chase). 1950. Manual of the grasses of the United States. USDA Misc. Publ. No. 200. Washington, DC.
-Seed head: Steve Dowlan, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Salem, Oregon.
-Plant: Dave Powell, USDA Forest Service, (http://www.forestryimages.org/).

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. Pseudoroegneria spicata. 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).