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Western Fescue (Festuca occidentalis)

Life history

Species overview

Western Fescue (Festuca occidentalis), a Wisconsin Threatened plant, is found on cobble beaches and wooded coniferous dunes on Lake Michigan. Blooming occurs throughout June; fruiting occurs early July through late August. The optimal identification period for this species is early July through late August.

Synonyms: Festuca ovina var. polyphylla


  • Distinguishing characteristics: Leaves basal, involute, less than 3 mm wide; panicle open and loose, often drooping above; lemmas thin, 5 to 6 mm long, attenuate into a slender awn at least 3 mm long or longer; summit of ovary with bristly pubescence.
  • Flower characteristics: Panicle loose, 7 to 20 cm long, often drooping above, the branches solitary or in pairs; spikelets loosely 3- to 5-flowered, 6 to 10 mm long, mostly on slender pedicels.
  • Fruit characteristics: Lemmas rather thin, 5 to 6 mm long, scaberulous toward the apex, attenuate into a slender awn at least 3 mm long or longer; summit of ovary with bristly pubescence.
  • Leaf characteristics: Blades mostly basal, slender (less than 3 mm wide), involute, sulcate, soft, smooth or nearly so.


  • Blooming phenology: throughout June
  • Fruiting phenology: early July through late August
  • Optimum time to identify: The optimal identification period for this species is early July through late August


  • Growth form: Graminoid
  • Vegetative reproduction:
  • Life cycle: Perennial
  • Comments: Associated Species: Abies balsamea, Thuja occidentalis, Poa glauca, Rubus parviflorus, Acer saccharum, Betula papyrifera, Goodyera repens, Carex aurea, Aralia nudicaulis.

State status

Status and Natural Heritage Inventory documented occurrences in Wisconsin

The table below provides information about the protected status - state and federal - and the rank (S and G Ranks) for Western Fescue (Festuca occidentalis). See the Working List Key for more information about abbreviations. Counties shaded blue have documented occurrences for this species in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory database. The map is provided as a general reference of where this species has been found to date and is not meant as a range map.

Documented locations of Festuca occidentalis in the Natural Heritage Inventory Database as of July 2015.

Summary Information
State StatusTHR
Federal Status in Wisconsinnone
State RankS1
Global RankG5
Tracked by NHIY

Habitats and landscapes

The Natural Heritage Inventory has developed scores indicating the degree to which each of Wisconsin's rare plant species is associated with a particular natural community or ecological landscape. This information is similar to that found in the Wildlife Action Plan for animals. As this is a work in progress, we welcome your suggestions and feedback.

General habitat information

  • Habitat description: Found on cobble beaches and wooded coniferous dunes on Lake Michigan.
  • Soils: Dry, rocky soils

Natural communities

This table lists the natural communities that are associated with Western Fescue. Scores for natural community associations are: "significant" association (score=3), "moderate association" (score=2) or the species can be present but is only weakly associated with the community (score=1).

Ecological landscapes

This table lists the ecological landscape association scores for Western Fescue. The scores (3=High, 2=Moderate, 1=Low, 0=None) also correspond to the map.

Map of the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin.

Ecological landscape score
Northern Lake Michigan Coastal 3

Species guidance

The Endangered Resources Program has developed avoidance measures and management guidelines for plants on the Natural Heritage Working List. These are a work in progress, and we welcome your suggestions and feedback. Sources used in developing this information can be found here.

Avoidance measures

These are specific actions designed to avoid "take" (mortality) of this species.

  • Avoid disturbance to wooded areas on or near the beach-forest interface.
  • Avoid broadcast spraying of herbicides; use care with spot spraying.
  • Avoid known individual plant locations and conduct operations elsewhere when they are least likely to cause damage. Ideally, this would involve frozen, snow-covered ground. However, in areas of the state where frozen conditions are unreliable, very dry soils late in the growing season might be the best available alternative. Consult with a biologist, if needed.
  • Avoid locating landings, staging areas, or access routes in open sandy areas dominated by native grasses.

Management guidance

Management guidelines are additional considerations that may help maintain or enhance habitat for this species

  • Follow BMPs, especially around streams and use care near ravines, steep slopes, cliffs, rock outcrops, etc.
  • Maintain partial canopy to encourage woodland species; avoid closed-canopy conditions.
  • Avoid disturbance to shorelines and the forest-beach interface.


Western Fescue Photo.

Photo © Rob MacDonald.

Western Fescue Photo.

Photo © Keir Morse.

Support for Wisconsin's rare plant information has been provided by the Division of Forestry, the Endangered Resources Fund and the Wisconsin Rare Plant Preservation Fund. To donate, visit the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin [exit DNR].

Last revised: Wednesday, May 05, 2021
Southwest Savanna Southern Lake Michigan Coastal Western Coulees and Ridges Southeast Glacial Plains Central Sand Hills Central Lake Michigan Coastal Central Sand Plains Northern Lake Michigan Coastal Northern Lake Michigan Coastal Northeast Sands Western Prairie North Central Forest Northern Highlands Northwest Lowlands Northwest Sands Northwest Lowlands Superior Coastal Plains Forest Transition