by Andrea Williams
This is installment two of a 12-part series on grasses. Read the previous installment here.
You all know the grizzly bear is a main feature of the California flag, but did you ever give a thought to the turf below its paws? While I can’t be certain, I and others like to think they are tussocks of our state grass, purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra, formerly Nassella pulchra). Did you not know California had a state grass? Purple needlegrass was designated our state grass in 2004, so while it’s only been official for 10 years, this pulchritudinous pastoral plant has been an important and widespread part of our state since well before there was a California. In fact, since individual purple needlegrass clumps can live more than 150 years, there may be plants alive today that have been around since before there was a California!
Purple needlegrass is not only widespread and long-lived, but also quite distinctive in its look. Its inflorescence of delicate purple pennons wave above a mound of fine emerald blades. This fine look has it also available at many native plant nurseries. Some may mistake ripgut brome (Bromus diandrus) for purple needlegrass, but the former—a non-native annual weed—holds a fistful of red bristles on single stalks, with no basal clump of leaves. And while ripgut brome is a danger to grazing animals, purple needlegrass remains an excellent forage species—for cattle, elk, deer, or bears!