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Deschampsia cespitosa (tufted hair-grass)

Tufted hair-grass is a large, tussock-forming grass, once used to form the roof of one of the oldest thatched cottages in England.

Deschampsia cespitosa (Photo: Rasbak licensed under CC BY 3.0)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Deschampsia cespitosa (L.) P.Beauv.

Common name: 

tufted hair-grass

Conservation status: 

Widespread and abundant; not of conservation concern.

Habitat: 

Rough grassland, marshes, water-meadows, woodland and moorland. Also occurs on riverbanks, fens and artificial habitats such as spoil heaps.

Key Uses: 

Ornamental, thatching material, habitat restoration, coarse fodder for livestock.

Known hazards: 

None known.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Lilianae
Order: 
Poales
Family: 
Poaceae
Genus: Deschampsia

About this species

Known for its bright, silvery panicles and rough-textured leaves, Deschampsia cespitosa is beautiful in appearance but can be a troublesome weed due to its persistence in a wide range of harsh environments. It has a high tolerance of metal-contaminated soils and thrives not only in nutrient-rich, poorly drained habitats, but also in well-drained, nutrient-poor soils. In some parts of the world it even colonises volcanic rocks, as well as sandy and gravelly beaches.

A study conducted in the 1970s showed that woodland coppicing in the Chiltern Hills (an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in southern England) resulted in an explosive spread of D. cespitosa which went on to dominate the whole ground-flora. Other studies have shown D. cespitosa to be a serious competitor with other plants, especially in marshy areas. The coarse nature of the leaves and their high silica content make tufted hair-grass unpalatable for grazing animals, thus contributing to its success.

Synonym: 


Genus: 
Deschampsia

Discover more

Geography and distribution

Found in both lowland and montane habitats throughout Europe and across northern Asia, extending into Central and Southwest Asia. Also present in the Middle East, China, Japan, the Indian Subcontinent, parts of North and Central Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Alaska, Canada, Greenland, the United States and South America.

In Great Britain, Deschampsia cespitosa has been recorded in virtually every 10 km² of the National Grid system, which is used by recorders to map the distribution of plants. It is slightly less abundant in Ireland, but nevertheless very common there too.It is a principal component of several distinct types of grassland community, for example the Holcus lanatus (Yorkshire fog) / Deschampsia cespitosa grassland associated with poorly-drained permanent pastures. In Britain alone, D. cespitosa has been found growing in association with more than 1,000 plant species.

Description

Deschampsia cespitosa is a densely tufted perennial grass, often forming large tussocks. The culms (stems) are erect and 20-200 cm tall. The leaves can be flat or loosely inrolled and are 10-60 cm long, usually arising from the base of the plant. This species can be distinguished by its leaves, which are rough to the touch, and the narrow, sharply pointed ligule found at the junction of the leaf blade and the leaf sheath that encircles the stem.

Deschampsia cespitosa herbarium specimen

Uses

Tufted hair-grass is cultivated as an ornamental and was used as a thatching material in the past. Although usually avoided by cattle, the tussocks are eaten by horses and rabbits when other food is in short supply. The foliage can also be cut for hay and silage. Deschampsia cespitosa has a broad ecological range and is useful in vegetation restoration projects. In the United States, for example, it has been used to stabilise slopes and to revegetate mine spoils. Tufted hair-grass is one of the food plants of the caterpillars of two British butterflies - the ringlet and the grayling.

Herbarium specimen linked to historic thatched cottage

Dried plant specimens from around the world are housed in Kew’s Herbarium. One such specimen was collected from the thatch of a cottage in Horton, Gloucestershire dating back to 1460 or earlier. The cottage was ear-marked for demolition, as it had deteriorated to such a poor state of repair that its residents were re-housed in 1966. But a member of the Gloucestershire Council applied for a preservation order after noting its historic value and restoration work was soon underway. It was during the renovation that sections of the old grass-thatched roof were discovered and samples of the grass were sent to Kew. The material was identified as Deschampsia cespitosa by Mr. A.J. Willis in November 1967, and the specimen has remained in the Herbarium ever since.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

Description of seeds: Average 1,000 seed weight = 0.4 g
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: 13
Seed storage behaviour: Orthodox (the seeds of this plant survive drying without significant reduction in their viability, and are therefore amenable to long-term frozen storage such as at the MSB)
Germination testing: 100 % germination was achieved on a germination medium of 1% agar, kept at a temperature of 16°C, and a cycle of 12 hours daylight / 12 hours darkness

This species at Kew

Deschampsia cespitosa can be seen growing in the Grass Garden at Kew.

Pressed and dried specimens are held in Kew’s Herbarium where they are available to researchers from around the world by appointment. The details, including images, of some of these can be seen online in the Herbarium Catalogue.

View details and images of specimens online

The Economic Botany Collection at Kew includes samples of tufted hair-grass.

Kew at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2011

In 2011, Kew partnered with The Times to produce a show garden to showcase the significance of plants to science and society.

The garden, designed by Chelsea gold medallist Marcus Barnett, featured species chosen to demonstrate both beauty and utility, including medicinal, commercial, and industrial uses to underline the fact that plants are invaluable to our everyday lives – without them, none of us could live on this planet; they produce our food, clothing and the air that we breathe.

Deschampsia cespitosa was one of the species that featured in the garden, which was awarded a Silver Medal.

 

References and credits

Clayton, W.D., Harman, K.T. & Williamson, H. (2006 onwards). GrassBase - The Online World Grass Flora. Available online (accessed 06 January 2011).

Cope, T. & Gray, A. (2009). Grasses of the British Isles. B.S.B.I. Handbook No. 13. Botanical Society of the British Isles, London.

Cox, R.M. & Hutchinson, T.C. (1979). Metal co-tolerances in the grass Deschampsia cespitosa. Nature 279: 231-233.

Davy, A.J. (1980). Biological Flora of the British Isles No. 149: Deschampsia caespitosa (L.) Beauv. (Aira cespitosa L., Deschampsia cespitosa (L.) Beauv.) J. Ecol, 68: 1075-1096.

Davy, A.J. & Taylor, K. (1974). Water characteristics of contrasting soils in the Chiltern Hills and their significance for Deschampsia caespitosa (L.) Beauv. J. Ecol, 62: 367-378.

Image: Ruwe smele plant Deschampsia cespitosa.jpg by Rasbak licensed under CC BY 3.0. Available online.

Preston, C.D., Pearman, D.A. & Dines, T.A. (eds) (2002). New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora: an Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. (2008) Seed Information Database (SID). Version 7.1. Available online (accessed 21 January 2011).

Kew Science Editor: Martin Xanthos
Kew contributors: Steve Davis (Sustainable Uses Group); Marie-Helene Weech
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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