by Andrea Williams
This is installment one of a 12-part series on grasses.
When someone asks what my favorite grass is, I prevaricate. Who can have just one? If pressed, I’ll pick California oatgrass (Danthonia californica), for reasons I’ll get into another time—but as a genus, fescues (Festuca sp.) are the best. Several of them have made their way into our gardens as lawns and ornamentals, but they’re natural standouts.
Most of our native fescues like to grow in big tussocky stands, sending slender stalks of spikelets to wave above dense clumps of fine leaves. Idaho (or blue) fescue (Festuca idahoensis) is probably our most well-known native; the tight blue bunches accent many a drought-tolerant landscape, and it’s found in our hottest driest spots on Mt. Tam as well. In the wild, it’s a little looser and tends to silver instead of blue, and can be hard to tell from red fescue (F. rubra) on occasion. Red fescue’s leaves aren’t red, but its flowering stalks often are. The fine leaf blades are rolled in long needles, and in most cases are a deep emerald green—the exception being, of course, when it grows in drier spots with Idaho fescue and the two species are almost indistinguishable. Red fescue is at its finest on the coast; the most common cultivar ‘Molate’ is from Point Molate, just on the Richmond side of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, where the coastal grassland was nearly lost to development.
Our largest and perhaps most striking native fescue (or fesque, as it used to be spelled) is California fescue. Clusters of blue-green leaves grow as tall as three feet and tussocks can reach four feet across; single flowering stalks reach six or more feet in the air. The plant keeps its flowering stalk and stays mostly green year-round, keeping things visually interesting as the seasons turn. I usually find it at moist edges of woodlands and forests, and the stands near Azalea Hill and along Bolinas-Fairfax Road are some of the finest anywhere. Sometimes people have difficulty telling California fescue from the thirsty fungus-harboring invasive non-native tall fescue (F. arundinacea), but the coarse broad green blades and tillering spread of tall fescue are dead giveaways.
So whether you’re seeking a good-looking grass for your yard or on a hike, just remember: it’s fescue to the rescue!