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Home>Plant Species>Native Species>Basin wildrye

Drawing of Basin wildrye Basin wildrye
Leymus cinereus (Elymus cinereus)

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Basin wildrye bunches can be up to 4 feet in diameter and 6.5 feet tall!

What is Basin wildrye?
Basin wildrye, sometimes called Great Basin wildrye, is the largest cool-season bunchgrass native to the western Unites States. Native Americans in the Great Basin used seeds of basin wildrye as food and collected its stiff roots in the winter to make cleaning brushes.

Basin wildrye seed headWhat are its characteristics?
Plants form large bunches up to 4 feet in diameter and 6.5 feet tall that are underlain by an extensive fibrous root system. Despite early spring growth, basin wildrye doesn’t produce seed until July. Seed heads are conspicuous because they grow 4-11 inches long. Germination rates are low and seedling vigor is fair. Most regeneration occurs through tillering and short rhizomes.

Basin wildrye grows on a wide variety of habitats, ranging from saline/alkaline valley bottoms to sagebrush and aspen woodlands. Optimal growth occurs in silty and clayey soil in areas with 15 to 25 inches of annual precipitation. It is more common near riparian sites and in swales or other drainage-collection areas. Like bluebunch wheatgrass, self-perpetuating stands of basin wildrye are indicative of healthy rangeland.

What’s its value to the Great Basin? Basin wildrye plant
Once established, these plants are strong competitors and have good fire tolerance. Basin wildrye provides excellent erosion control. Large bunches of basin wildrye make good cover for deer and antelope, though they browse it sparingly. It provides important winter forage for elk. Throughout the year it also serves as habitat and a food source for upland game birds, songbirds, and small mammals.

Grazers consume new growth in early spring, but by summer foliage is tough, and most plants are left ungrazed. It is not tolerant of heavy grazing. Despite these traits, basin wildrye can be valuable winter forage because this tall grass can be grazed when other plants are covered with snow. Snow softens mature basin wildrye, making it easier to eat.

What is its restoration potential?
This species can be hard to establish on rangelands because of low germination and seedling survival. Because of this, it is not often included in seeding mixtures. It can be a valuable restoration species where moisture is adequate. Basin wildrye's greatest potential lies in the revegetation of saline/alkaline range sites where it is difficult to get many other grasses to establish and survive.

-Drawing:Cindy Roché © Utah State University, 2006
-Seed head: Larry Blakely © 2004
-Plant: Larry Blakely © 2004

Text references:
-USDA, NRCS. 2006. The PLANTS Database (, 26 September 2006). National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA.
-Utah State University, Extension. 2006. Range Plants of Utah website (, 26 September 2006).
-University of Saskatchewan, Range Ecosystems and Plants Fact Sheet. (, 26 September 2006). -Anderson, Michelle D. 2002. Leymus cinereus. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: (, 26 September 2006).