Grass family (Poaceae)
Description: This native perennial grass is about 1-2' tall and usually tufted at the base, otherwise it is unbranched. The culms are light green to reddish green, terete, and glabrous. Alternate leaves are produced sparingly along each culm. The leaf blades are up to 4" long and 1/5" (5 mm.) across; they are light green to pale bluish green, hairless, and erect to slightly spreading. The leaf sheaths are light green to pale reddish green, hairless, and finely ribbed.
Each culm terminates in a nodding spike about 2½4" long. Because of the spreading awns of its spikelets, the spike is nearly as broad as long. The spike is light green, often with reddish or purplish tints, and its appearance is silky and glistening. The spikelets are densely distributed along the length of each spike. Each spikelet consists of a central lemma with a pair of awn-like glumes and 2 lateral lemmas on short pedicels. The central lemma is fertile, narrowly lanceolate, and about ¼" long; it has an awn about 12¼" long. The awn-like glumes are arranged in front of the central lemma; they are about 12½" in length. The lateral lemmas are sterile; each lateral lemma is reduced to 1-3 awns about 12½" in length. The flower of each fertile lemma has 3 stamens and a pair of plumose stigmas. The blooming period occurs during early to mid-summer (rarely into the fall). Afterwards, the flowering spikes become light tan; the fertile lemma of each spikelet produces a single grain. The spikelets become detached from their culms and are blown about by the wind, which helps to distribute the grains into new areas. The root system is fibrous. This grass spreads by reseeding itself. It often forms small colonies at suitable locations.
Cultivation: The preference is full sun and moist to dry conditions. Different kinds of soil are tolerated from muddy soil to dry gravelly soil. This grass has a high tolerance of salt. It will not tolerate much competition from taller vegetation.
Range & Habitat: Squirrel Tail is quite common in northern and central Illinois, while in the southern part of the state it is less common or absent (see Distribution Map). Habitats include edges of marshes, muddy borders of puddles, poorly drained fields, pastures, vacant lots with compacted soil, gravelly areas along roads and railroads, mined land, and sterile waste areas. This grass is typically found in disturbed sunny areas with scant vegetation.
Faunal Associations: Little information is available about floral-faunal relationships for this species. The long awns of the flowering spikes can injure the eyes, mouthparts, nostrils, and digestive tract of grazing animals.
Photographic Location: A gravelly area along a railroad in Champaign, Illinois.
Comments: During early summer, this attractive grass can be found along interstate highways for mile after mile. It tolerates road salt and adapts readily to the dry gravelly conditions of the roadside. The long-awned nodding spikes move gracefully in the wind. Squirrel Tail would be grown as an ornamental grass, except that is rather common and weedy. It is easily distinguished from other Hordeum spp. (Barleys) by its nodding spikes and their long awns (greater than 1" in length). Other Barleys, whether native or introduced, have shorter awns and their flowering spikes are often erect. Another common name of Hordeum jubatum is Foxtail Barley.