Virginia wild rye (Elymus virginicus) presents a somewhat variable appearance. To identify it quickly, look for a bunchgrass that resembles wheat or rye.
This grass is 2 to 4 feet tall. Its full height is easy to gauge, because it has rigid stems that keep the plant stiffly upright. These stems are hollow and connect the plant to its fibrous root system.
The leaves, on the other hand, tend to defy generalization. They may be anywhere between 2 and 12 inches long. Sometimes they are flat, and sometimes they are rolled inward. Usually they are green, but sometimes their color is more of a blue-green, often with a whitish waxy coating.
The inflorescence is fairly distinctive, being a stiff, erect, greenish spike, much like a head of wheat. However, even this feature varies, ranging from 2 to 6 inches in length and being either completely exposed to view or partly hidden in the plant’s upper sheath. There may be long awns, or there may be no awns at all.
This plant is common throughout the eastern and central United States. It can be found just about anywhere in Kansas.
Virginia wild rye is quite adaptable, occurring in prairies, pastures, bottomlands, wooded edges, and disturbed areas alike. Nearly any soil will do provided that it contains some nutrients and is reasonably well drained. Plants in full sunlight are the hardiest, but Virginia wild rye can grow in partial shade, as well.
A cool-season perennial, Virginia wild rye starts growth in the spring by putting out a number of shoots. Some of these shoots are infertile, consisting of nothing more than tufts of leaves, but some are fertile and continue to develop as the season progresses. From May through July, these fertile shoots flower and produce seed to spread the plant.
The infertile shoots continue to appear throughout the year, until fall arrives and the plant goes dormant for the winter. At this time, the foliage and spikes turn an attractive tan color.
Virginia wild rye serves as food for numerous other species. This species is a host plant for the Hessian fly larva. It also attracts aphids, leafhoppers, and stink bugs, but on the positive side it draws numerous butterflies.
Both deer and Canada geese, among others, will graze the leaves.
Virginia wild rye can be a palatable and nutritious forage for livestock when young, but be careful not to let it mature as it grows tough at best and hosts the toxic ergot fungus at worst. On the other hand, overgrazing this species will cause it to die out. The solution is a rotational grazing program, using the grass in its earlier vegetative stages of growth but giving it time to rest. Likewise, if cutting Virginia wild rye for hay, err on the side of cutting it a little early to avoid ergot contamination.
Because Virginia wild rye is fast-growing, it makes a good pioneer species for erosion control and habitat restoration, particularly near streams. The recommended seeding rate for this plant is 20 pounds per acre.
Virginia wild rye has ornamental appeal. It looks great in a native plant garden, and it can be effectively added to borders, as well, but be aware that it will try to spread. No pretreatment is required for successful seeding. For a naturalized prairie look, scatter 1 ounce of seed per 100 square feet. This grass may require some moisture while getting established, but it should not demand much else. Dividing the roots is optional but a good way to easily start new plants.
Virginia wild rye can become a weed in gardens, as it self-seeds fairly effectively.
The seedheads of this plant can become infected with a fungus known as ergot. This fungus is dangerous to grazing animals because it restricts the blood flow, leading to heat intolerance, gangrene of the extremities, and in some cases nervous system impairment. However, ergot is only a problem once the plant has flowered. Regular grazing and/or clipping will prevent the development of seedheads.
While Virginia wild rye awns are not as long and sharp as those of the closely related Canada wild rye species, they do still pose a risk to both pets and livestock. Awns can become embedded under the eyelids, or work their way into the skin and travel through the body, leaving a trail of abscesses and bacterial infections in their wake. Keep animals away from mature Virginia wild rye.
Canada Wild Rye
Canada wild rye may seem superficially similar to Virginia wild rye at first. However, the inflorescence of Canada wild rye is large and showy, with particularly long awns, often measuring over 1 inch in length. Also note that Canada wild rye tends to be somewhat less abundant in damp, shady conditions than Virginia wild rye.
Parts of a Grass Plant: A Glossary
Definitions for technical terms used in this post.