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), which twist into the ground as they dry, self-planting
  • Height usually 1-2 ft.


  • 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)

  • One of several grass seeds used by Native people as a food source
  • Native people used grasses in many ways: 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


  • About 80% of California’s native grasses, including foothill needle grass, are perennials (Beidleman and Kozloff 2003)
  • Native perennial bunchgrasses leave room for wildflowers to grow between clumps
    • In contrast, non-native annual grasses often grow in thick carpets and can form an impenetrable thatch that chokes out other plants
  • Native perennial bunchgrasses have deep roots
    • Draw water and nutrients to the surface where they can be utilized by other vegetation
      • In contrast, shallowly-rooted non-native annual grasses take resources from the soil surface (Heiple 2018)
    • 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
    • Provide erosion control
  • Like other bunchgrasses, foothill needle grass is adapted to endure light grazing and defoliation by fire
    • High-intensity, continuous grazing, especially in drought conditions, will kill it
  • Grasses, oaks, and silk tassels are examples of plants at Edgewood that are wind pollinated
    • About 12% of flowering plants and most conifers are wind-pollinated (US Forest Service)
    • These plants do not waste energy on flower features that attract animal pollinators; instead, their flowers generally have these characteristics
      • Small, petalless, and unscented, with muted colors
      • No nectar
      • Stamen (male flower part) and stigma (pollen-receiving part of the pistil/female structure) are exposed to air currents
      • Male flowers produce a great deal of pollen, which is very small, dry, and easily airborne, as all allergy sufferers know!
  • Some references classify needlegrasses in the genus Nassela
  • Needle grasses “are the redwoods of the grass world” with life spans exceeding 100 years (Don Reese, a USDA soil conservationist, quoted in Wilson 2012)

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

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

Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. 2019. Carbon Sequestration in Grasslands.

US Forest Service. Celebrating Flowers: Wind and Water Pollination. United States Department of Agriculture.

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