Monday, August 18, 2014

Fescue. You mean there’s more than one kind?

Typical conversation about fescues.

Bill: What kind of grass do you have?
Bob: Fescue.
Bill: What kind of fescue?
Bob: You mean there’s more than one kind?
Bill: Yes.

As I travel around the region and give presentations or respond to email and phone questions, it is very common for me to enter into a dialogue with a person about planting, maintaining, controlling, etc. some kind of fescue. Usually in my interactions with people, they are unaware that there are many different kinds of fescues.

Festuca is the genus (first word in scientific name) for fescue species. Hence, Festuca’s are name Fescue. However, recently tall and meadow fescue were reclassified by scientists into the genus Schedonorus (see table below) although they still retain their same common name of fescue. Tall fescue and meadow fescue are similar with meadow fescue being used sparingly for overseeding in warm-season turf or as a forage grass and tall fescue commonly being used in lawns, roadsides and pastures. The remaining fescues including slender creeping red fescue, strong creeping red fescue, Chewings fescue, sheep fescue, blue fescue, and hard fescue are often grouped together and called “fine fescues” because of their narrow (fine) leaves. Another reason for grouping them all together is because they are difficult to distinguish from one another. Blue fescue is another fine fescue species used as an ornamental landscape grass.

Below is a breakdown of the common (and a few not so common) fescues used in turf (and ornamentals) and a short description of each.

Table 1. Description of the common and uncommon fescues used in turf (and ornamentals).

Common name
Species Comments
Slender creeping red fescue Festuca rubra ssp. littoralis Similar to strong creeping red fescue but with shorter, more slender rhizomes. Both slender and strong creeping red fescue tolerate some close mowing.
Strong creeping red fescue Festuca rubra ssp. rubra Strong creeping red fescue has more rhizome growth (spreading ability) than slender creeping red fescue. Strong creeping red fescue is a common ingredient in “Sun & Shade” mixes because of its good shade tolerance and its suitability in seed mixtures.
Chewings fescue Festuca rubra spp. fallax Named after George Chewings. Excellent shade tolerance and turf density, this fine fescue is similar to creeping red fescue but it lacks rhizomes.
Tall fescue Schedonorus arundinaceus (Schreb.) Dumort. (also = Lolium arundinaceum (Schreb.) S.J. Darbyshire; formerly = Festuca arundinacea Schreb.) Improvements in tall fescue have transformed this grass from a forage type grass to many improved turf-type cultivars. Today, both "forage" and "turf-type" tall fescue are used. Kentucky-31 (KY-31) is a forage type and not a lawn type. Known for its ability to maintain green color during moderate droughts due to its deep root system, tall fescue is more commonly used today on lawns than in the past.
Sheep fescue Festuca ovina Excellent drought tolerance. This fine fescue with fair turf density does not tolerate close mowing. It is often used in unmown, “native” areas of golf courses.
Blue fescue Festuca glauca Ornamental grass. Common variety is ‘Elijah blue’
Meadow fescue Schedonorus pratensis (Huds.) P. Beauv. (formerly Festuca pratensis Huds.) Similar in appearance to tall fescue. Little current use in high value turf.
Hard fescue Festuca brevipilla Excellent shade tolerance, this fine fescue does not tolerate close mowing. It is often used in unmown, “native” areas of golf courses.
Red fescue Festuca rubra Today, red fescue is classified into two groups: 1) Slender creeping red fescue or 2) Strong creeping red fescue. However, some seed labels may still just say, red fescue.

Figure 1. Unmown, fine-fescue used on a golf course. These areas are often described as no-mow, native areas, or environmentally sensitive areas to the golfers.

Figure 2. Chewings fescue. Notice the fine leaf texture (narrow leaf width) compared to tall fescue below.
Figure 3. Tall fescue (turf-type).

Aaron Patton, Turfgrass Extension Specialist


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