Also known as “nodding wild rye,” Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) is an attractive and distinctive species. Note the thick seedhead, at least three inches long and sometimes up to a foot in length! The seedhead is covered with anywhere between 5 and 20 overlapping spikelets. These spikelets come equipped with sharp, somewhat curly awns that can be over 1.2 inches long.
But while the inflorescence is the most notable part of a Canada wild rye plant, there are many other interesting things to observe about this grass. It is a bunchgrass with shallow roots and short rhizomes. The stems vary in height from three to six feet. They may be upright or arching and either thick or thin. One thing about the stems that is consistent, however, is that they are hollow and extremely tough. During the vegetative phase, the stems are also waxy.
The leaves grow in an alternating pattern and are blue-green in color. They tend to be 4 to 16 inches long, while the width ranges from 1/4 to 1/2 inch. The leaves of this species tend to feel coarse to the touch, with a bristly surface above, a prominent midrib below, and finely toothed edges. The leaves are tapering and grow from a yellowish or light-green collar.
Canada wild rye is native not just to Canada, but to a large part of North America. It is particularly common in the Great Plains and can be found throughout Kansas, particularly in open prairies and low-lying or disturbed areas.
This plant is adapted to a wide variety of soils, but prefers dry or well-drained soils. It can tolerate salinity and black walnut well. Canada wild rye can also adapt to most sunlight conditions, as well, although it seems to thrive best in at least partial sun.
As a cool-season perennial, Canada wild rye does its active growing when soil temperatures are relatively low. It experiences a burst of growth in spring, then flowers in July and August. This species mostly self-pollinates, although it can cross-pollinate with other Elymus species.
After persisting through hot, dry weather by growing comparatively little, Canada wild rye resumes growth when soils cool off in the fall. As the season progresses into winter, however, it goes dormant and turns a muted tan color.
Canada wild rye is a native species that has an important role in ecological succession. It is one of the first grasses to appear in disturbed areas, quickly establishing symbiotic relationships with endophytes. These fungi appear to aid in Canada wild rye’s reproductive process. But Canada wild rye is not a competitive species, and once its ecological role is complete it will readily give way to other grass species.
This grass is also beneficial to a number of wildlife species. The seeds provide food for birds and small mammals, while clumps of Canada wild rye serve as a habitat for reproducing birds and butterflies.
Canada wild rye is a palatable, nutritious plant for hay or pasture up to the time the head starts to emerge, although its quality diminishes considerably beyond that point. It is high in energy and low in protein. Because this species does not compete effectively with other grass species, if you want to keep it in the mix, lighter grazing will be necessary. Do not graze it until it is at least 5 inches tall in spring and fall. Also, do not burn pastures containing Canada wild rye once it has started growing in the spring.
The role of Canada wild rye in ecological succession can be put to excellent use in erosion control plantings. It is relatively inexpensive, and when planted in a mix it will establish quickly and hold the soil down until other species can take over. Prepare a firm, weed-free seedbed before planting. Plant after the middle of May at a rate of two or three pounds per acre.
Because Canada wild rye will add visual interest to the garden even into the winter, it is sometimes added to flower arrangements and ornamental plantings, particularly along borders. Before planting, mix your seeds with damp (not wet) sand or vermiculite and seal in a plastic bag. Put the whole mixture into the refrigerator for two weeks. Plant immediately, placing the seeds in groups two to three feet apart on top of the soil (Canada wild rye needs light to germinate). At this point, Canada wild rye should require no special care. It should establish very quickly and will replenish itself by self-seeding, although you can divide the plants in autumn if you choose.
A more unusual use of Canada wild rye is for researching genetic disease resistance, of particular interest to barley growers.
Canada wild rye will overrun bare ground rapidly unless other grass species are present. This is most likely to be a problem in gardens.
The seedheads can become infected with ergot fungi, which in turn can poison livestock. Cattle are the most likely species to be affected.
The sharp awns can cause injury in dogs, and may even enter the body and travel around, spreading infections and abscesses.
The inflorescences of Canada wild rye are extremely distinctive. Once this species has gone to seed, it is not likely to be confused with any other plant.
Parts of a Grass Plant: A Glossary
Definitions for technical terms used in this post.