Purple Needle Grass

Purple Needle Grass © DSchiel

Stipa pulchra

Description (Jepson, PlantID.net)

  • Monocotyledon
    • Monocots are a major lineage of flowering plants; see family for general characteristics
  • Grass Family (Poaceae)
  • Perennial bunchgrass
  • Roots generally reach 2-6 ft. and can reach 16 ft. deep
  • Open, nodding inflorescence (flower arrangement) develops many needle-like seed heads
  • Wind pollinated
  • Fruit is a grain (a dry, one-seeded fruit with a fused seed coat)
    • Grain (seeds) have sharply-pointed tips and twice-bent awns (stiff, hair-like appendages)
  • Height ranges from 2-3 ft. tall
  • Lifespan can reach 200+ years (Rawlings 2006)


  • Native to California
    • Grows in grasslands, coastal sage scrub, chaparral, and foothill woodlands in areas with clay and serpentine soils
    • See Calflora for statewide observations of this plant
  • Outside California, grows south to Baja California, Mexico
  • Grows at elevations to 5,600 ft.

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

  • Provides food for more than 330 animal species (Bill Text 2003-2004)
    • Provides forage for deer, elk, and other wildlife (Tilley 2009)
    • 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 feathery flower clusters
  • pulchra (PUL-kra) – from the Latin for “beautiful” or “handsome”
  • Purple needle grass – young flower clusters are purple-tinged; the awns (stiff, hair-like appendages) are especially 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
  • Most widespread of California’s native bunchgrasses, growing across the state in a variety of habitats and soils
    • Dominant grass species in California’s grasslands and foothills before European settlement
    • Designated State Grass of California in 2004
      • Recognized as “a symbol of the heritage, splendor, and natural diversity found in the early days of California” (Bill Text 2003-2004)
  • About 80% of California’s native grasses, including purple 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 Stipa lepida)
  • Some references classify needlegrasses in the genus Nassela

ID Tips

  • May be confused with foothill needle grass (S. lepida)
    • Purple needle grass
      • Is taller, with a coarser, more robust appearance
      • Has awns (stiff, hair-like appendages) longer than your little finger ( ≤ 4 in.)
      • Tends to grow in open grassland
    • Foothill needle grass
      • Is shorter, with a finer, more delicate appearance
      • Has awns shorter than your little finger (≤ 2 in.)
      • Tends to grow at the margins of woodlands and chaparral

At Edgewood

  • Widespread in grasslands, especially in serpentine soils
  • 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.

Bill Text – SB-1226 State Grass. 2003-2004. California Legislative Information.

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.

Rawlings, J. 2006, Apr. 4. Purple Needlegrass, Nassella pulchra, March-June, Native. Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, Stanford University: Some Native and Naturalized Grasses.

Steinberg, P.D. 2002. Nassella pulchra. Fire Effects Information System. United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory.

Tilley, D., D. Dyer, and J. Anderson 2009. Purple Needlegrass Stipa pulchra (Hitchc.) Barkworth. Plant Guide. United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plant Materials Center, Lockeford, California.

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.

Wilson, B. 2012. Stipa pulchra, Purple Stipa. Las Pilitas Native Plant Nursery.