Crested Wheatgrass (Cristatum)

The Crested Wheatgrass (Cristatum) is generally described as a perennial graminoid. This is not native to the U.S. (United States) . Leaves are not retained year to year.

Uses of : Landscaping, Medicinal, Culinary, etc.

Grazing/rangeland/hayland: Crested wheatgrass is a perennial, introduced grass commonly seeded in the arid sections of the western United States. Crested wheatgrass is commonly recommended for forage production. It is palatable to all classes of livestock and wildlife. It is a preferred feed for cattle, sheep, horses, and elk in spring and also in the fall, if additional growth occurs. It is considered a desirable feed for deer and antelope in spring and fall, if additional growth occurs. It is not considered a desirable feed for cattle, sheep, horses, deer, antelope, and elk in the summer. In spring, the protein levels can be as high as 18 percent and decrease to about 4 percent as it matures. Digestible carbohydrates remain high throughout the active growth period. It is commonly utilized for winter forage by cattle and horses, but protein supplements are required to ensure good animal health. It is noted for its ability to withstand very heavy grazing pressure (65-70 percent utilization), once stands are established. Crested wheatgrass is a good forage producer in the areas where best adapted. Crested wheatgrass is generally not recommended above 12-14 inches of precipitation, because better, alternative forage species are available. Crested wheatgrass stands generally produce from 1.5 to 2 times more than native grass stands, generally in the bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata) ecosystems. The best forage types, in order, are Siberian, desert, and Fairway.

Erosion control/reclamation: Crested wheatgrass is well adapted to stabilization of disturbed soils. It competes well with other aggressive introduced plants during the establishment period. Crested wheatgrass is not compatible in mixes with native species, because it is very competitive and will out-compete slower developing native species. Their drought tolerance, fibrous root systems, and good seedling vigor make these species ideal for reclamation in areas receiving 8 to 16 inches annual precipitation. In areas above 14 inches annual precipitation, ‘Roadcrest’ and ‘Ephraim’ may exhibit their rhizomatous traits and make excellent low maintenance lawns when broadcast seeded to establish thick lawns. These grasses can be used in urban areas where irrigation water is limited to provide ground cover, weed control and to stabilize ditch banks, dikes, pipelines, power lines, and roadsides.

Wildlife: Birds and small rodents eat crested wheatgrass seeds. Deer, antelope, and elk graze it, especially in spring and fall. Upland and songbirds utilize stands for nesting. Where it is planted as a monoculture, the resulting biodiversity is lower than that found in a diverse plant community.

General Characteristics

General: Grass Family (Poaceae). It is a long-lived, cool season, drought tolerant, introduced, and winter hardy grass with an extensive root system. Related species include the following: Desert wheatgrass (Agropyron desertorum) and Siberian wheatgrass (Agropyron fragile).

Spike 2 to 7 cm long. The spikelets more widely spreading with the glumes somewhat contoured, gradually tapering into awns 2 to 5 mm long. Fairway or crested wheatgrass has short-broad spikes that taper at the top, smaller seeds, grows shorter, and has finer leaves and stems than desert wheatgrass. Desert wheatgrass has longer spikes than fairway, but vary in spike shape from comb-like to oblong. Fairway and desert grow from 1 to 3 feet tall with seed spikes 1.5 to 3 inches long. Spikelets are flattened, closely overlapping, oriented at a slight angle on the rachis. The lemmas are linear-lanceolate narrowing to a short awn. Glumes are awl shaped and firm, and keeled. Culms are erect. Leaves are flat, smooth below, slightly scabrous (coarse) above and vary in width from 2 to 6 mm. Siberian is very similar to fairway and desert, but has finer leaves and stems, narrower and awnless glumes and lemmas, and the spikelets are more ascending, which gives the spike a narrow, oblong, sub-cylindrical shape. Siberian is more droughts tolerant and retains its greenness and palatability later into the summer than either desert or fairway.

Required Growing Conditions

This species was introduced from Asia and is naturalized from the Pacific coast to New York. For current distribution, please consult the Plant Profile page for this species on the PLANTS Web site.

Cultivation and Care

Crested wheatgrass should be seeded with a drill at a depth of 1/2 inch or less on medium to fine textured soils and 1 inch or less on coarse textured soils. Single species seeding rates recommended for crested wheatgrass and its close relatives are 5-7 pounds Pure Live Seed (PLS) per acre or 20 to 30 PLS per square foot. Single species seeding rates recommended for Siberian wheatgrass is 6-8 pounds PLS per acre or 24-30 PLS per square foot. If used as a component of a mix, with alfalfa (Medicago spp.), sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia), yellow sweetclover (Melilotus officinalis), cicer milkvetch (Astragalus cicer), or others adjust to percent of mix desired. For mined lands and other harsh critical areas, the seeding rate should be increased to 10-12 pounds PLS per acre or 40 to 50 PLS per square foot. Mulching and light irrigation on highly disturbed, droughty areas are beneficial for stand establishment.

The best seeding results are obtained from seeding in very early spring on heavy to medium textured soils and as dormant seeding in late fall on medium to light textured soils. Late summer (August - mid September) seedings are not recommended unless irrigation is available.

Crested and Siberian wheatgrasses establish quickly, with ‘Hycrest’ and ‘Vavilov’ noted for their seedling vigor. They should not be seeded with native species, unless seeding rates are very low (< 2 pounds per acre). They may compliment native stands that are already partially established. Under favorable conditions they are good weed barriers.

Stands may require weed control measures during establishment, but application of 2,4-D should not be made until plants have reached the four to six leaf stages. Mow when weeds are beginning to bloom to reduce weed seed development. Grasshoppers and other insects may also damage new stands and use of pesticides may be required.

Adaptation: Crested wheatgrass is adapted for non-irrigated seedings, where annual precipitation averages 8-16 inches or more (fairway should average 10 inches or more), and where the frost-free period is generally less than 140 days. Desert and hybrid cross are superior above 8 inches annual precipitation in spring recovery and grazing readiness. On droughty sites with 7-10 inches annual precipitation, Siberian wheatgrass may be the best choice. It is known to surpass desert and hybrid cross in rate of establishment, stand persistence, and total forage yield on the more arid sites. Siberian has been seeded in areas with as little as 5 inches of precipitation with some success.

Crested wheatgrass should generally be seeded below 7,000 feet elevation. Fairway does well up to 9,000 feet elevation. Crested wheatgrass does well on shallow to deep, moderately course to fine textured, moderately well to well drained soils. Under saline conditions, vigor and production are reduced. Fairway is not well adapted to silty soils. Siberian types are well adapted to light-sandy, droughty soils. All crested wheatgrasses are cold tolerant and can withstand moderate periodic flooding, not exceeding 7-10 days in the spring. They are very tolerant of fire. They will not tolerate long periods of inundation-standing water, poorly drained soils, or excessive irrigation.


This is a species introduced from Asia.

General Upkeep and Control

Crested wheatgrass produces leaves in the spring about 10 days after bluegrass species and about two weeks earlier than native wheatgrasses. They make good spring growth little summer growth and good fall growth if moisture is available.

Crested wheatgrass has good palatability for livestock and some wildlife. Livestock and wildlife will graze crested wheatgrass throughout the spring growing season until it becomes too coarse, and again in fall if re-growth occurs. Established stands can withstand very heavy grazing.

New stands of crested wheatgrass should not be grazed until they are firmly established and have started to produce seed heads. Six inches of new growth should be attained in spring before grazing is allowed in established stands. Three inches of stubble should remain at the end of the grazing season to maintain the long-term health of the plant. In addition, leaving three inches or more stubble will result in a 10 - 14 day earlier growth period or “green-up” in spring.

Crested wheatgrass is a low maintenance plant requiring little additional treatment or care. However, spring/fall deferment or grazing rotations are recommended to maintain plant health and to maximize forage production potential.

Crested wheatgrass is competitive with weedy species, but can be crowded out by some aggressive introduced weedy species and native woody species.

Crested wheatgrass can be used for hay production and will make nutritious feed, but is more suited to pasture use. Light infrequent applications of nitrogen (25 pounds/acre) and light irrigation will increase total biomass production and lengthen the growing period. Re-growth of crested wheatgrass is slow.

Environmental Concerns: Crested wheatgrass is long-lived and spreads primarily via seed. Spread of rhizomatous varieties is very slow in the case of the ‘Roadcrest’ and ‘Ephraim’. They are not considered weedy or invasive species. Most seedings do not spread beyond original plantings. They will cross with each other, but do not cross with native species.

Crested wheatgrass resists cheatgrass competition better than most native species, because it germinates earlier and grows more rapidly at colder temperatures. This has an important competitive advantage, when dealing with winter annual species, such as cheatgrass.

Full, properly managed stands of crested wheatgrass generally exclude native grasses and forbs. When inter-seeded into native stands, crested wheatgrass commonly co-exists with native grasses, forbs and shrubs. Some native shrubs, such as big sagebrush and rabbitbrush, often invade crested wheatgrass stands, especially if native seed sources are nearby.

Due to commonly being planted in monocultures (single species) stands in the past, some feel crested wheatgrass is not ecologically appropriate. It is important to consider the paragraph above and to plant multiple species mixes to avoid this perception.

Seed Production Seed production of crested wheatgrasses has been very successful under cultivated conditions. Row spacing of 24 to 30 inches when irrigated and 36 inches or greater under dryland conditions are recommended. Early spring or late fall seedings are recommended under dryland conditions. Early spring seedings are recommended under irrigated conditions. When irrigated, spring seedings consistently yield more seed during the first year of seed production. To obtain maximum seed production, fall plantings are not recommended.

Control weeds during stand establishment and long term management of stand by clipping, hand rouging or light rates of herbicide (2,4-D or Bromoxynil according to label) after the five-leaf stage. Fertilizer is generally not recommended during establishment. If soil nitrogen and phosphorus are low, an application of 10-15 pounds per acre nitrogen and 20-30 pounds per acre phosphorus may be applied prior to planting. Fertilize for full seed production following the establishment yea

Plant Basics
General Type Graminoid
Growth Duration Perennial
Plant Nativity Introduced to U.S.
Physical Characteristics
Displays Fall Colors No
Flower Conspicuousness No
Gardening Characteristics
Cold Stratification Required No
Toxic to Nearby Plants No
Toxic to Livestock No
After-Harvest Resprout Ability No
Responds to Coppicing No
Growth Requirements
pH Range 0–0 pH
Precipitation Range 0–0 inches/yr
Planting Density 0–0 indiv./acre
Minimum Frost-Free Days 0 day(s)
Sustainability & Use
Leaf Retention No
Fire Resistant No

Source: USDA, NRCS, PLANTS Database,
National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA