The genus Festuca in Canada is represented in all major floristic zones (Aiken and Darbyshire, 1990). In the Columbia Basin region it occurs from the dry, open ridge tops in the alpine zone to the moist valley bottoms and the open, dry grasslands.
The name Festuca comes from the Latin word festuc, which means a stalk or stem (Borror, 1960). This could refer to the long culm that holds up the flowerhead. Aiken and Darbyshire (1990) refer to the origin of the word Festuca as being from Latin for weedy grass. This certainly describes the way some people feel about certain introduced Festuca species. In Canada, fescues have a long history of introduction as an important part of seed mixtures for rangeland grasses. Species such as Festuca trachyphylla and cultivars were seeded because of their resistance to frost and drought. Other introduced species wereFestuca arundinacea, Festuca pratensis and some Festuca rubra types. The Festuca rubra complex has some members that are introduced and some species that are native, and these species have hybridized. In the west native species such as Festuca occidentalis, Festuca campestris, Festuca saximontana and Festuca idahoensis are important forage species. Naturally occurring hybrids as well as artificial hybrids from breeding programs have compounded the taxonomy of the fescues.
All fescues are perennial, but there is a closely related genus -- Vulpia -- that looks like fescue but has an annual habit. At one time, Vulpia was classified within Festuca. The annual habit is the main character for differentiating the two genera, and this necessitates looking at the root.
The most recent and comprehensive study of the Festuca grasses of North America is available on interactive CD-Rom from the Canadian Museum of Nature. This is an update of the Fescue Grasses of Canada by Aiken and Darbyshire, 1990. For a more detailed account on British Columbia fescues, Douglas et al. (1994) contains keys to the B.C species.
Leaves and Stem: The stem is stout, almost reedlike, with exposed nodes and smooth internodes. The dead sheaths remain at the base of the plant and are smooth to slightly roughened. The leaves are flat, with coarse ridges and are about 3-12 mm wide. The auricles are obvious, clawlike with dense hair along the margins. The tiny ligules are ragged-edged and scarcely 2 mm high.
Flowerhead and Flowers: The flowerhead is narrow, 10-35 cm long, well-branched and may be somewhat droopy at maturity. Young flowerheads look somewhat spikelike at a distance. The lowest node on the flowerhead has two to three branches. The glumes are much shorter than the spikelets and are smooth and rounded on the back. The lemma is rounded, smooth or rough to the touch with a 0.3-1.5-mm-long awn at the tip of the lemma.
Habitat: Tall Fescue was first introduced from Europe and Asia in 1870, because it is a robust forage that can survive the cool season. Since then it has been used for land stabilization and turf. It grows on beaches, roadsides, disturbed areas and moist meadows, and is widespread in the Columbia Basin region around the Cranbrook and Creston areas.
Similar Species: Tall Fescue is similar to Meadow Fescue (Festuca pratensis) in that they are both flat leaved. Tall Fescue can be distinguished by the hairs on the margins of the auricles, and the leaves are wider and coarser than those of Meadow Fescue (3-12 mm compared to 2-7 mm). These leaves form a more robust tuft in Tall Fescue and the foliage remains fresh after first frost, whereas Meadow Fescue withers quickly. In addition, Tall Fescue has pale straw-coloured closed leaf sheaths. Tall Fescue may be confused with the larger members of Bromus (bromes), but by looking closely you will notice that the awns of the lemma of Tall Fescue extend from the tip, whereas in Bromus they extend from a point between two teeth at the tip.
Leaves and Stem: The stem can have exposed nodes or not, but the most easily distinguished character is the densely hairy upper internode. These thick hairs will be obvious when looking with a hand lens at the base of the flowerhead. There are dead sheaths visible at the base of the stem or culm, and these sheaths decay into fibres (splitting between the veins). The living sheaths are open to half the length to the next node. The obvious auricle consists of an erect swelling. The ligule is 0.1-0.3 mm long, ragged and blunt. The bristlelike leaves are 0.25-0.52 mm wide, inrolled and stiff.
Flowerhead and Flowers: The purplish flowerhead is 1.5-4 cm long and brushlike, in that the flowers appear to be on one side of the stem, with the branchlets pointing upward. The glumes are unequal, much shorter than the spikelets and rounded on the back rather than keeled. The glumes can be smooth or rough to the touch. The lemma is rounded on the back and feels rough or harsh to the touch toward the tip of the lemma. Elsewhere the lemma appears glossy. The awn is 0.8-2.6 mm long.
Similar Species: Baffin Fescue resembles alpine fescue (Festuca brachyphylla), except that Baffin Fescue has a dark one-sided flowerhead, and is very hairy just below the flowerhead -- especially at the node.
Leaves and Stem: The stem can have a purplish tinge at the base and may or may not have exposed nodes. The internodes are hairless to sparsely hairy. The dead sheaths remain at the base and the live sheaths are open at least half their length and are slightly hairy. The auricle is an erect swelling, and there is a ligule that consists only of tiny hairs. Leaf blades are 0.35-0.65 mm wide, stiff, bristlelike and smooth on the back.
Flowerhead and Flowers: The flowerhead is 1.4-4 cm high, spikelike and stands erect. Its colour is either green or purple. The short branchlets have small hairs. Glumes are much smaller than the spikelets and are rounded across the back. At the glume tip there may be small hairs but there are no hairs over the back. Lemmas are rounded across the back and may be smooth or rough-hairy at the tip. The awn is 1.2-3 mm long.
Habitat: Alpine Fescue grows on dry slopes in the alpine zone and occurs throughout the Arctic and subarctic areas of the Northern Hemisphere. In the Columbia Basin region it grows at Paradise Mine, Ashman Lake, Mount Festubert and Old Glory Mountain.
Similar Species: Aiken and Darbyshire (1990) state that there are three other species in this complex that are closely related and look very similar to Alpine Fescue. They are Baffin Fescue, Little Fescue (F. minutiflora) and Rocky Mountain Fescue (F. saximontana). In Douglas et al. (1994), Rocky Mountain Fescue is separated from the complex by having rounded leaves in cross-section, whereas the other three have angular blades. Baffin Fescue is distinguished from Alpine Fescue by having hairiness near the flowerhead on the stem. To see the differences between Alpine Fescue and Little Fescue check the description under Little Fescue (F. minutiflora).
Leaves and Stem: Rough Fescue is a bunchgrass and this form has both living and dead leaf sheaths at the base. The dead leaf sheaths break off at the collars and leave sheaths that persist for several years. The living sheaths are bright purple at the base and hairy with short hairs. The auricle has a distinct swelling. The ligule is 0.1-0.5 mm long and has a hairy appearance. The erect and stiff leaves tend to be inrolled or flat. When the leaves are flat, they can be as wide as 1.2-3.2 mm The underside of the leaf blade is rough.
Flowerhead and Flowers: The flowerhead has stiffly spreading branches that are 4.4-7 cm long. Glumes are shorter than the spikelets and smooth or slightly rough to the touch. The lemma is rough textured but the veins are not prominent. The awn is 0.5-1.5 mm long.
Habitat: Rough Fescue grows in dry to moist meadows and forest openings in the montane and subalpine zones. It is the dominant component in the Bluebunch Wheatgrass association of grasslands. In the Columbia Basin region it is a widespread fescue species.
Similar Species: Pavlick and Looman (1984) in the study of Rough Fescues in Canada and the adjacent United States, determined that there were three very similar species of Rough Fescues in western Canada and that there is no overlap in their ranges. Northern Rough Fescue (F. altaica), differs from Rough Fescue by having weak, drooping, deflexed branchlets, and it grows in alpine, subalpine and boreal sites north of the Columbia Basin region. Rough Fescue, on the other hand, grows in the Columbia Basin region and has rigid, not drooping branchlets but is somewhat open in the appearance of the flowerhead. Rough Fescue is also similar to Hull's Fescue (F. hallii), but Hull's Fescue only occurs east of the Rockies, and it has an erect flowerhead and fewer spikelets. Stem nodes are not visible in any species of the Rough Fescue complex, and this character distinguishes Rough Fescue, Altai Fescue (F. altaica) and Hull's Fescue from Rocky Mountain Fescue and Idaho Fescue (F. idahoensis).
Leaves and Stem: The stem has exposed nodes, and the internodes are smooth with scattered tiny bumps. The dead sheaths remain at the base and living sheaths may or may not have purplish pigments. Sheaths are open and there are no auricles. The smooth to slightly rough leaves occur mostly at the base. The leaves are 0.35-0.6 mm wide, bristlelike, folded and inrolled and reach 10 cm long. The ligule is 0.3-0.6 mm long, higher at the sides than in the middle and has a fringed margin.
Flowerhead and Flowers: The flowerhead is 7-15 cm long and has erect to slightly diverging branches. The spikelets are mostly five to seven flowered and spread out along the axis. The glumes are much shorter than the spikelets, and one of the two narrow glumes is about half the size of the other. The glume tips are rounded. The 4-6.5-mm-long rounded lemma bears a stout, erect 2-5 mm-long awn.
Habitat: Idaho Fescue occurs in meadows, dry and rocky slopes and balds. It is widespread throughout the Columbia Basin region. Idaho Fescue is an important rangeland plant, and in the bunchgrass habitat is codominant with Bluebunch Wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata) (=Agropyron spicatum) and Rough Fescue.
Similar Species: There has been a great deal of debate as to whether Idaho Fescue is distinct from Western Fescue (Festuca occidentalis), but they do have observable differences. Idaho Fescue has a distinct bunchgrass form, whereas Western Fescue has a loose tuft habit. The flowerheads of Idaho Fescue are not as distinctly spread, and the awns are shorter than those of Western Fescue (2-5 mm compared to 5-10 mm long). Rocky Mountain Fescue (Festuca saximontana) is similar to Idaho Fescue, but differs by the size and shape of the flowerhead and the length of lemma awns. But vegetative or immature specimens may be difficult to distinguish.
Leaves and Stem: The smooth stem rarely has exposed nodes and there are no obvious dead sheaths around the base of the plant. The living sheaths are mostly bluish green or rarely purple. They are open, smooth and have a midvein. The auricle is an erect swelling and the ligule is 0.1-0.3 mm high. Leaf blades are bristlelike, scarcely 1 mm wide and appear tightly inrolled.
Flowerhead and Flowers: The narrow flowerhead is only 1-5 cm long and has short branchlets. The spikelets are 2.5-5 mm long and have two to five flowers. The glumes are much shorter than the spikelets, rounded on the back and rough-textured towards the glume tip. Scattered hairs occur along the margins of the glume. The lemma is abruptly and sharply pointed and rough at the tip of the 0.7-1.5-mm-long awn.
Habitat: Little Fescue grows scattered on dry, stony slopes in the alpine zone and in meadows in subalpine openings. According to Aiken and Darbyshire (1990) it occurs along the Rocky Mountain corridor in the Columbia Basin region.
Similar Species: Little Fescue resembles Alpine Fescue, but has smaller spikelets, more abruptly pointed glumes and shorter awns.
Leaves and Stem: Western Fescue grows from a large clump of hairlike basal leaves. The sheaths are open and smooth. The soft inrolled leaf blades scarcely reach 1 mm wide. The ligules are only 0.5 mm long and are fringed at the tip. There is no auricle.
Flowerhead and Flowers: The open-branched flowerhead is 7-20 cm long and usually droops at the tip. At maturity, the branchlets are visible between the spikelets. The two unequal and reflexed branches at the lower node separate Western Fescue from other fescues. Spikelets are three to five flowered and crowded close together on the axis. The glumes are unequal and sharply pointed and much shorter than the spikelet. The 5-mm-long membraneous lemma tapers into a 5-10-mm-long bendable awn attached at the tip of the lemma.
Similar Species: Idaho Fescue is very similar to Western Fescue, but Western Fescue has smaller lemmas (4-6 mm) -- some of which are always shorter than the awn. Idaho Fescue has a tight, narrow flowerhead compared to the open flowerhead of Western Fescue; and, Idaho Fescue usually favours drier sites than does Western Fescue.
Leaves and Stem: Nodes are exposed along the smooth stem. The brown dead sheaths do not remain intact at the base of the plant, instead they split into fibers. Living sheaths are round, open and hairless and may be purplish. The auricles are clearly visible, clawlike and smooth. The ligule has a ragged-looking margin and is 0.2-0.4 mm high. Flat, loosely inrolled leaf blades are 2-7 mm wide and droop.
Flowerhead and Flowers: The narrow flowerhead ranges from 6-22 cm long. Its lowest node has two branches. Two unequal glumes are much shorter than the spikelet and have a rounded back. They feel slightly rough textured and have wide transparent margins. The lemmas are rounded on the back and smooth to rough near the tip. The veins along the back of the lemma do not reach the tip, ending instead at the transparent margin. The lemma is usually awnless or it may bear a small hair that is less than 2 mm long
Habitat: Although there are no specimens of Meadow Fescue in the Royal British Columbia Museum collections from the Columbia Basin region, we have included a description of the species because it has been documented as occurring in British Columbia by Aiken and Darbyshire (1990), from near Revelstoke and Castlegar and in the Flathead region of the Columbia Basin.
Similar Species: Meadow Fescue is one of the parents in a hybrid with Perennial Ryegrass (Lolium perenne) (see the Festulolium X loliaceum description). The offspring of the cross do not resemble the Festuca parent very closely. Meadow Fescue sometimes resembles smaller forms of Tall Fescue. A character useful in distinguishing the two is the dense hair along the margins of the auricle of Tall Fescue.
Leaves and Stem: The stems are
thin. The live sheaths are closed for more than one half of their
length. Open, live sheaths disintegrate with age into brown curled
fibres. The leaf blades are 0.4-1.1 mm wide, folded, inrolled and
hairless, but more or less lax. There are no auricles. The ligules
Flowerhead and Flowers: The flowerhead is narrow, 3-20 cm long and branches. The spikelets vary from reddish purple to glaucous green. There are four to seven flowers above the two narrow glumes. One of the glumes is slightly shorter than the other, and both are much shorter than the spikelet. The lemmas are 5-8.5 cm long with a short awn arising from the tip.
Habitat: Red Fescue grows in a wide variety of habitats including wet meadows and stream banks, clearings, fields and road sides. In the Columbia Basin region, this species has been collected from Windermere Lake area, Wardner and Creston Flats.
Similar Species: Red Fescue, in the broad sense, includes many subspecies (which are considered to be species by some) and many varieties (Pavlick 1985). There are two subspecies in the collection at the Royal BC Museum: ssp. rubra and ssp. vallicola. Red Fescue is also included as part of seed mixtures of native and non-native stocks. Expect a lot of variability in this species.
Leaves and Stem: The smooth stems sometimes have exposed nodes. Dead sheaths remain at the base of the plant but do not break up into fibres. Living sheaths are open almost to the base. They are covered in sparse, minute, backward-facing hairs. The auricle area has a distinct erect swelling. The ligule is 0.1-0.5 mm long and has a roughly gnawed or torn margin. The leaf blades are stiff and 0.3-0.7 mm wide.
Flowerhead and Flowers: The flowerhead has erect or spreading branches. The glumes are shorter than the spikelet, unequal and rough at the tip. They are rounded to slightly keeled. Glume margins are erose. The lemmas are rounded and smooth on the back, and there are short, stiff hairs at the tip and on the 0.4-2-mm-long awn.
Habitat: Rocky Mountain Fescue grows in dry to mesic meadows from the montane to subalpine zone. In the Columbia Basin region two subspecies have been collected: purpusiana and saximontana. Douglas et al. (1994) state that "F. saximontana ssp. purpusiana is the name given to subalpine and alpine forms which are 8-20 (25) cm high, in which the culms are about 2-3 times the length of the basal tufts and the spikelets are moderately purplish".
Similar Species: Alpine Fescue is similar to Rocky Mountain Fescue -- see Alpine Fescue (F. brachyphylla). The differences between the two subspecies saximontana and purpusiana, appear to be in the amount the leaf sheaths are open. The leaf sheath is never closed more than 1/3 its length in ssp. saximontana whereas it is closed about 1/2 the total length or more in ssp. purpusiana. Douglas et al. (1994) separate the two varieties on habitat preferences -- ssp. saximontana occurs in the montane or boreal zones, whereas ssp. purpusiana occurs in alpine or subalpine zones.
Leaves and Stem: Stout stems arise from a scarcely leafy base. Sheaths are open and smooth to hairy. Leaf blades are flat, sometimes inrolled, drooping, and hairy on the upper surface. They are narrowed at the base but 3-8 mm wide otherwise. The small ligule is 0.5 mm high and has a fringe of relatively coarse hairs. There are no auricles.
Flowerhead and Flowers: The flowerhead is 20 cm long, loose, open and has only one or two drooping branches at a node. Spikelets contain three to five loosely fitted flowers. The two, unequal, very narrow glumes are much shorter than the spikelet. The lemma is 7 mm long and has a prominent, 0.5-2.0-cm-long thin awn that extends from the minutely two-toothed tip. The awn is usually crinkly, twisted or bent.
Habitat: Crinkle-awned Fescue generally grows in moist, partly shaded sites in forest and woodland, but may occur on moist slopes and in meadows. The plant is usually loosely rooted in humus. Crinkle-awn Fescue occurs near Lardeau in the Columbia Basin region.
Similar Species: The minutely two-toothed lemma tip may be confused with Bromus species. The awn in Bromus is attached well below the two teeth, whereas in Festuca it is attached at the tip.
Leaves and Stem: The stems have exposed nodes and the dead sheaths remain at the base and do not decay into fibres. The purplish, living sheaths are open to the base, have a prominent midvein, but a rounded back. The auricle is a distinct swelling. The ligule has a ragged edge and is 0.2-0.5 mm high. The leaf blades are 0.4-0.6 mm wide, almost bristlelike and rough textured.
Flowerhead and Flowers: The narrow flowerhead is 3-9 cm long. Branchlets are visible between the flowers on each spikelet. The unequal glumes are shorter than the spikelets. They are rounded on the back and rough at the tip. Lemmas are rounded across the back and are either hairless or hairy at the tip. The awn is 0.5-2.5 mm long.
Habitat: Hard Fescue was introduced for forage from Eurasia because of its frost and drought-tolerance. Through commercial seeding and naturalization, the distribution of Hard Fescue now extends throughout most of Europe and North America. It grows in disturbed areas near Salmo.
Similar Species: Green Fescue is like Hard Fescue, except for, according to Douglas et al. (1994), Green Fescue has longer anthers and is found in high mountain habitat. As part of the Sheep Fescue complex, Hard Fescue bears some resemblance to native sheep fescues, such as Western Fescue, Idaho Fescue, Rocky Mountain Fescue and Green Fescue, but is an introduced species developed by hybridization.
Leaves and Stem: Exposed nodes and the internodes are smooth. The dead sheaths do not remain around the base of the plants but decay into long fibres. The living sheaths may or may not be purplish and are open or closed for 1/4 their length. The auricle is a distinct swelling. The ligule has a ragged margin and is 0.2-0.5 mm high. The leaf blades are lax, narrow, 0.8-2.0 mm wide, but when dry have inrolled edges.
Flowerhead and Flowers: The flowerhead ranges from open to contracted, reaching 4-12 cm long. It is important to observe whether the flowerhead is mature or not. An immature flowerhead will appear contracted. The glumes are unequal and much shorter than the spikelet. They are distinctly keeled and rough at the tip. The lemmas are keeled at least close to the tip, often green at the base and purplish towards the tip. The lemma may be awnless, or may havea 0.2-0.5-mm-long hairlike awn.
Habitat: Green Fescue grows on mesic and dry slopes in the alpine and subalpine zones in the Rocky Mountains. It occurs near Nelson in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park and at Procter Lake in the Flathead.
Similar Species: Hard Fescue is like Green Fescue, except for, according to Douglas et al. (1994), Green Fescue has longer anthers and is found in high mountain habitat.
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