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Grasses at a Glance

Identifying Tall Fescue

clump of Tall Fescue

Last week while leading a guided hike through a prairie restoration, I was able to observe numerous species of grasses – both those that are desirable in a restoration, and those that are remnants of previous land uses. While I saw native Prairie Dropseed, Switchgrass, Big Bluestem, and Indiangrass, I also saw some non-native grasses. One of these that is very common in southern Illinois is Tall Fescue, Schedonorus arundinaceus.

Tall Fescue has been widely used as a forage grass, however its widespread infection with a fungus that grows inside the plant has complicated its forage use. Fescue is also a popular lawn grass, especially in the southern part of Illinois. When pastureland is converted into a prairie restoration or wildflower planting, Tall Fescue can remain and be difficult to remove.  

Looking closer at leaves

Tall Fescue is a cool-season bunchgrass. It greens up early in the spring and by late May is already in flower. It grows between 2-5 feet tall if unmowed. Its leaves are stiff and sharply angled at the collar region to be held close to 90 degrees away from the stem. You can find a short membranous ligule and blunt auricles (shorter and rounder than other grasses), which are arm-like extensions of the leaf sheath.

bunches of Tall Fescue showing bunching growth habit
Tall Fescue grows in individual bunches.
close up of auricles and membranous ligule of Tall Fescue
Tall Fescue has a membranous ligule as well as blunt auricles. The auricles in this grass are not long and skinny like in other grasses, but rather wide and short.
Angled leaves of Tall Fescue
The sharply angled leaves of Tall Fescue make it stand out from other grasses that don't hold their leaves upright.

Fescue in bloom

As Tall Fescue is starting to bloom, it might be tricky to tell what type of inflorescence it has. As the flowers are developing, it looks like it has a spike, but once fully developed you’ll see branches, which means it has a panicle. The spikelets of this grass are oval shaped with pointed tips and short awns. They can be green to reddish in color. In bloom, you can find yellow anthers and white stigmas pushed out of the spikelets.

inflorescence of Tall Fescue looking like spike on left and panicle on right
When first developing an inflorescence, the branches are held close to the main stem, making the inflorescence look like a spike (left). A week or two later, the branches will expand and show the panicle shape.
Tall Fescue in bloom
Close-up of Tall Fescue in bloom, with yellow anthers and white stigmas pushed out of the spikelets.

Sources: USDA NRCS Tall Fescue Plant Guide and Understanding the Tall Fescue Endophyte

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Erin Garrett is a Natural Resources, Environment, and Energy Educator for University of Illinois Extension serving Alexander, Johnson, Massac, Pulaski, and Union counties. Erin develops and delivers high impact programming to adults and youth to help them develop an appreciation for natural resources and to empower them to make small changes to positively impact the environment. Erin’s programming focuses on why homeowners should consider choosing native plants, how to support native pollinators, how to identify grasses, how to identify and manage invasive species, and developing an appreciation for prairie ecosystems.

ABOUT THE BLOG: Grasses at a Glance dives into grass identification, focusing on tips and tricks that make grass identification possible. Get information about native and non-native species, how to tell look-alikes apart, and which grasses you can find in Illinois. 

How to Identify Tall Fescue

Tall Fescue, Schedonorus arundinaceus, is a non-native, cool season grass found in fields, disturbed habitats, and planted as a lawn grass. Tall Fescue is a bunchgrass that grows two to five feet tall. Its leaves are stiff and sharply angled at the collar to be held about 90 degrees...