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 courser, 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.