Bearded wheat grass (Elymus trachycaulus)

Bearded wheat grass ssp. trachycaulus

Top facts

  • One subspecies of the bearded wheat grass can only be found in Greenland.
  • The bearded wheat grass readily hybridises to with many closely related species.
  • The bearded wheat grass’ high fecundity and adaptability means that it is often used to re-vegetate disturbed land.
  • There are at least three subspecies and six varieties of the bearded wheat grass.
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Bearded wheat grass fact file

Bearded wheat grass description

GenusElymus (1)

The bearded wheat grass is a perennial, relatively short-lived bunchgrass or tussock (2). The stems or ‘culms’ are erect or decumbent at the base, and are of varying heights (5). The basal leaves are generally longer than those towards the tip (2) and the flowers are arranged in racemes known as ‘spikelets’, which also vary in length (5). These spikelets consist of several florets, each protected by several bracts. The root system of the bearded wheat grass is dense and moderately deep (2).

The bearded wheat grass is an extremely variable species, and hybridises readily with species within its own and in closely related families (2) (6). There are at least three subspecies and six hybrid varieties currently accepted, each of which differ in size, flower arrangement, and stem length. Individuals of this species found at higher elevations are generally shorter, with thicker stem and dense, crowded inflorescences (2). Those found at lower elevations are tall and slender, with long stem and sparsely packed flowers (2). However, the frequent hybridisation between subspecies and hybrids means that variation in these traits is regularly found between habitats (2) (6).

Also known as
rough stemmed wheatgrass, slender wheatgrass, slender wild rye.
Agropyron caninum, Agropyron subsecundum, Agropyron trachycaulum, Agropyron violaceum.
Height: 5 - 120 cm (2)
Leaf length: 8 - 33 cm (2)
Average root depth: 30 cm (2)
Flower length: 5 - 25 cm (2)

Bearded wheat grass biology

The bearded wheat grass readily self-fertilises (7) but can also hybridise with other species within and in closely related genera. Natural hybrids are known to occur with crested wheat grass (Agropyron cristatum), Canada wildrye (Elymus canadensis), bottlebrush squirreltail (Elymus elymoides), Saunder’s wheatgrass (Elymus saundersii), blue wildrye (Elymus glaucus), thickspike wheatgrass (Elymus lanceolatus) and false quackgrass (Elymus pseudorepens), among others. The adaptability and high fecundity of the bearded wheat grass means it is widely used for re-vegetating disturbed land and it has been used for rehabilitating mine spoils, oil-drilling sites, livestock ranges, wildlife habitat, and watershed areas (2).

The bearded wheat grass is grazed on by the sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), elk (Cervus canadensis), moose (Alces alces), bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis), mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus), pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), various rodents, and livestock (2) (5). Birds and small mammals use this plant’s seeds for food and the foliage for cover and nesting material (2) (5).


Bearded wheat grass range

The bearded wheat grass is widely distributed across North America. Its range extends from Alaska and Newfoundland in the north to North Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Texas in the south (2). One subspecies, Elymus trachycaulus virescens, is only found in Greenland (7).


Bearded wheat grass habitat

A widely distributed species, the bearded wheat grass is known to occur in many different climates across its large range and some populations show distinct ecotypes that are adapted to local conditions (7).  This plant can be found in semiarid areas, temperate forests, and in sub-alpine, alpine, and sub-arctic habitats (2).


Bearded wheat grass status

The bearded wheat grass has not yet been assessed by the IUCN.


Bearded wheat grass threats

The bearded wheat grass is resistant to light grazing, but is somewhat vulnerable to heavy grazing (2) (6). This grass is also susceptible to diseases such as head smut (Ustilago bullata) and stripe smut (Ustilago striiformis) (5).


Bearded wheat grass conservation

The bearded wheat grass is classified as endangered in New Jersey and threatened in Ohio (4). In Canada it is rated as secure or apparently secure in every province it has been assessed in (3). The subspecies Elymus trachycaulus subsecundus is classified as threatened in Ohio, endangered in New Jersey and of special concern in Conneticut (4). Another subspecies, Elymus trachycaulus trachycaulus, is classified as endangered or extirpated in Maryland, endangered in New Jersey and threatened in Ohio (4).

There are not currently known to be any specific conservation measures in place for the bearded wheat grass, but it is known to occur within protected areas, and some populations are protected due to the endangered status of this species (5).


Find out more

Find out more about grasses in the family Poaceae:

Read more about plant conservation in North America:



This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:



Modified leaf at the base of a flower.
Lying along the ground, with the extremity curving upward.
A measure of fertility, such as sperm count or egg count or the number of live offspring produced by an organism.
A category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
Cross-breeding between two different species or subspecies.
The reproductive shoot of a plant, which bears a group or cluster of flowers.
A plant that normally lives for more than two years. After an initial period, the plant usually produces flowers once a year.
An inflorescence (the flower-bearing reproductive shoot of a plant) in which the individual flowers all have distinct stalks and are attached to a central stem. The flowers at the base open first, and new flowers are produced at the tip as the shoot grows.
Fusion of male and female sex cells (gametes) from the same individual. In contrast, in cross-fertilisation, two different individuals are involved.
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.


  1. Catalogue of Life (May, 2014)
  2. United States Forestry Service Database - Elymus trachycaulus (May, 2014)
  3. NatureServe Explorer (May,2014)
  4. United States Department of Agriculture - Slender Wheatgrass (May, 2014)
  5. United States Department of Agriculture - Slender Wheatgrass (May, 2014)
  6. Ohio Department of Natural Resources - Elymus trachycaulus (May, 2014)
  7. United States Department of Agriculture - Slender Wheatgrass (May, 2014)

Image credit

Bearded wheat grass ssp.  trachycaulus  
Bearded wheat grass ssp. trachycaulus

© Louis-M. Landry

Louis-M. Landry


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