Virginia Wild Rye

Virginia wild rye flowering heads backlit against a background of shrubs and trees
Scientific Name
Elymus virginicus
Poaceae (grasses)

Virginia wild rye is a native perennial tuft-forming, cool-season midgrass usually reaching about 2–4 feet in height. It generally has fibrous roots, without rhizomes. The stems and leaves are green or bluish green, sometimes with a slightly whitish, waxy coating. The rather weak stems sometimes lean slightly or are arched.

Leaf blades are flat, 2–12 inches long, and to ½ inch wide; if there are earlike structures (auricles) where the leaf blade meets the stem, these are at best hard to see.

Flowering heads are bristly and generally resemble those of wheat or rye; when mature, they tend to remain erect (instead of nodding); the base of the flowering heads is sometimes enclosed in the uppermost leaf sheath. Flowering heads are 1½–6 inches long, with 2 spikelets per node. Each spikelet points upward at an angle and has 2–4 florets. Spikelets are tipped with bristly awns; these may be about 1 inch long and usually stay straight at maturity. Flowers May–September.

Within its species, Virginia wild rye varies quite a bit, and botanists sometimes use formal scientific names to classify these varieties. A discussion of these is beyond the scope of this online field guide intended for nonspecialists.

Similar species: Some 12 species in genus Elymus have been recorded for Missouri. Wild ryes are in a subdivision (tribe) of the grass family along with many familiar and similar-looking genera, including goat grass, crested wheatgrass, barley, rye, and wheat. While most people use the form, size, and shape of roots, stalks, leaves, flowers, and fruits to distinguish among plants, botanists today are also using molecular (DNA) characteristics to organize this tribe of grasses.

Canada wild rye (E. canadensis) is one of the more common of Missouri’s other wild ryes. It can be distinguished from Virginia wild rye by its nodding or arching (not erect) seedheads, and by the rather curving or bent (not straight) awns on its mature seedheads. It is generally larger and more robust than Virginia wild rye.

Note that Virginia wild rye may sometimes hybridize with other grasses in its genus, and the offspring may have characteristics intermediate between the two parent plants. Canada wild rye apparently is one of the species it can form hybrids with; the offspring are called E. xmaltei.

Virginia wild rye can also hybridize with bottlebrush grass (E. hystrix); their offspring are called Ebinger’s wild rye (Elymus x ebingeri).

Other Common Names
Virginia Wildrye

Height: flowering stems 16–55 inches.

Where To Find

Common statewide.

Occurs in bottomland forests, mesic (moist) to dry upland forests, upland prairies, glades, ledges of bluffs, and banks of streams and rivers, often on limestone and dolomite substrates. Also occurs on pastures, fallow fields, roadsides, railroads, and open, disturbed areas.

Native perennial tuft-forming, cool-season midgrass without rhizomes.

Virginia wild rye is palatable as forage or hay for livestock. The spiny mature seed heads, however, may injure the mouths of grazing animals. Also, take care to harvest this and related grasses before ergot (a toxic type of fungus) may infect the seed heads, to avoid poisoning grazing animals.

Virginia wild rye is a good choice for erosion control. Its ability to spread by seeds makes it inappropriate for manicured gardens, but as an easy-to-grow native groundcover, it can be a good choice in naturalized areas such as streambanks, wild areas, prairie plantings, and rain gardens. The flower heads are attractive in flower arrangements.

Several types of insects feed on Virginia wild rye, including a variety of leafhoppers, stink bugs, and other true bugs; weevils, leaf beetles, and other beetles; a sawfly; and the caterpillars of several moths. The caterpillars of skippers usually eat grasses. Many of these insects become food for birds and other larger animals.

Mice and waterfowl eat the seed or entire seed heads.

Herbivorous mammals, such as deer and rabbits, eat the tender young leaves, but as with domestic livestock, the spiky mature seed heads probably are less appealing.

This is one of many kinds of grasses that spread by tillering. A tiller is a new shoot that develops beside its parent, arising from the root system. This is how many of the so-called bunch grasses grow into tufts or clumps.

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A very simple way of thinking about the green world is to divide the vascular plants into two groups: woody and nonwoody (or herbaceous). But this is an artificial division; many plant families include some species that are woody and some that are not. The diversity of nonwoody vascular plants is staggering! Think of all the ferns, grasses, sedges, lilies, peas, sunflowers, nightshades, milkweeds, mustards, mints, and mallows — weeds and wildflowers — and many more!