Foothill Needle Grass

Foothill Needle Grass © SBernhard

Stipa lepida

Description (Jepson,

  • Monocotyledon
    • Monocots are a major lineage of flowering plants; see family for general characteristics
  • Grass Family (Poaceae)
  • Perennial bunchgrass
  • Open, nodding inflorescence (flower arrangement) develops many needle-like seedheads
  • Wind pollinated
  • Seeds have sharply-pointed tips and twice-bent awns (stiff, hair-like appendages)
  • Height usually 1-2 ft.
  • Lifespan can exceed 100 years


  • Native to California
    • Grows in chaparral, coastal sage scrub, and grasslands
    • See Calflora for statewide observations of this plant
  • Outside California, grows in Baja California, Mexico
  • Grows at elevations to 4,600 ft.

Uses (San Mateo County Parks prohibits removal of any natural material)

  • Wildlife
    • Provides cover and forage for a variety of wildlife
    • Seeds eaten by a variety of wildlife, e.g. quail (Heiple 2018)
  • Native people
    • Had many uses for native bunch grasses
      • Seeds were gathered, parched, and ground into flours (Anderson 2005)
      • Non-food uses included lining cooking pits, stringing drying foods, and as flooring or bedding

Name Derivation

  • Stipa (STY-pa) – from the Greek for “flax” or “fiber,” for the tufted flower clusters
  • lepida (LEH-pid-a) – from the Latin for “elegant” or “graceful”
  • Needle grass – awns (stiff, hair-like appendages) are long and fine, like a needle trailing a thread


  • Seed is adapted to promote dispersal and planting (Cunningham 2010)
    • Long, twice-bent awn (stiff, hair-like appendages) hooks onto fur or clothing
    • Pointed tip and rough, unidirectional hairs on the seed body help work it into fur, clothing, and soil
    • Awn twists when dry and straightens out when wet allowing the seeds to drill themselves into the ground, self-planting
      • Watch this video clip to see how awns can help grass seeds walk (BBC Studios 2022)
  • Deep roots of native perennial bunchgrasses help plants survive drought, fire, and intermittent grazing
    • High-intensity, continuous grazing, especially in drought conditions, will kill them


  • Wind pollinated – see Grass family to learn more
  • About 80% of California’s native grasses, including foothill needle grass, are perennials (Beidleman and Kozloff 2003)
  • Native perennial bunch grasses provide advantages to the native ecosystem
    • Growth habit leaves room for wildflowers
      • In contrast, non-native annual grasses often grow in thick carpets and can form an impenetrable thatch that chokes out other plants
  • Deep roots
    • Draw water and nutrients to the surface where they can be used by other plants; in contrast, shallowly-rooted non-native annual grasses take resources from the soil surface (Heiple 2018)
    • Provide erosion control
    • Act as highly effective carbon sinks
      • The rate of carbon sequestration increases with soil depth
      • Even when these grasses die, the carbon remains in the soil, providing resilience to climate change
  • Needlegrasses “are the redwoods of the grass world with life spans exceeding 100 years” (Don Reese, a USDA soil conservationist, quoted in Wilson 2012)
  • Some references classify needlegrasses in the genus Nassela

ID Tips

  • May be confused with purple needle grass (S. pulchra)
    • Foothill needle grass
      • Is shorter (1-2 ft.), with a finer, more delicate appearance
      • Has awns (stiff, hair-like appendages) shorter than your little finger
      • Tends to grow at the margins of woodlands and chaparral
    • Purple needle grass
      • Is taller (2-3 ft.), with a coarser, more robust appearance
      • Has awns longer than your little finger
      • Tends to grow in open grassland

At Edgewood

  • Widespread in chaparral and scrub; look for it at the sloping margins of grasslands and woodlands, often in part shade
  • Flowers April – June

See General References

Specific References

Anderson, M.K. 2005. Tending the Wild. University of California, Berkeley. Pp. 255-261.

BBC Studios. 2022, Feb. 6. These seeds can walk [Video]. The Green Planet. BBC Earth. YouTube.

Beidleman, L.H. and E.N. Kozloff. 2003. Plants of the San Francisco Bay Region: Mendocino to Monterey. University of California, Berkeley.

Cunninham, L. 2010. State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California. Heyday, Berkeley, California. Pg. 111.

Heiple, P. 2018, Aug. 8. Personal communication.

Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. 2019. Carbon sequestration in grasslands.

U.S. Forest Service. Wind and water pollination. Forest Service. United States Department of Agriculture.

Wilson, B. 2012. Stipa lepida, Foothill stipa. Las Pilitas Native Plant Nursery.