Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Happy Solstice

Purple Needle Grass

Purple Needle Grass, Nassella pulchra

And the hills turn brown in the summer time. — Kate Wolf “Here in California”

I was on a plane for the official solstice yesterday, so I’m a little late, this should probably be titled ‘first day of summer’. Purple needle grass (Nassella pulchra), the California native which looks dead (no, it’s not dead, it’s just dormant) in the summer but actually lives a hundred years or more, seems like a good image for the California summer, also sometimes referred to as straw season. (Quick quiz: Are the hills brown or golden in the summer time? I think the correct answer will depend on where you are from.) I was back east in New Hampshire for the first time last week and I was a bit shocked at how green everything was. The foliage was recklessly green, as if blithely unaware a couple of weeks of drought would burn it to a crisp. It rained every afternoon while I was there, and a part of me felt excited every time — summer rain, what a concept — but then I started to actually understand that it rains in New Hampshire in the summer. I’ve never been out of the West in the summer; I don’t think I fully understood how dry our California dry season really is.

Purple needle grass is the official state grass of California, a fact that becomes less impressive when you find out it has only been the state grass since 2004. (Who knew that designation of an official state grass would be a legacy of the Schwarzenegger years?) More impressive is that purple needle grass is the most widespread grass in the state, that the roots go 6-15 feet deep, and that it beat out over three hundred other grasses to get the title. Happy solstice, happy summer, happy straw season.

ryan 6/22

5 Responses to “Happy Solstice”

  1. June 22nd, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    lostlandscape(James) says:

    Happy solstice to you too, Ryan. With all the Father’s Day merchandising that was going on I’d forgotten about it being the first day of summer until the middle of the afternoon. I’d rather shop for solstice presents…

  2. June 23rd, 2009 at 7:41 am

    tina says:

    Happy Straw Season to you too Ryan. I know Californians come to expect the season of no rain out there, but it would be so hard for me to get used to it, though after the last few years, it is looking drier and drier here too. Might need to call it straw season too. An amazing grass to have roots to 6 feet plus! Great drought buster for sure.

  3. June 23rd, 2009 at 8:47 am

    Town Mouse says:

    I often wonder, though, how it might have looked when other bunch grasses were still around. Some look pretty greenish even in summer (deer grass, anyone?). I do think the golden color comes from the European oat and rye grasses. Regardless, Happy Straw Season.


  4. June 24th, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    ryan says:

    That’s a good point, the grasses that fill our hills with straw are mostly non-native annual grasses. Maybe the native bunch grasses are golden and the non-natives turn brown? Deer grass and deschampsia and a lot of others do look pretty greenish all summer if you pull out some of their old foliage.

  5. June 25th, 2009 at 4:55 am

    Country Mouse says:

    I’m growing a similar bunchgrass, nassella lepida, from local gathered wild seed. It stays green with water and is very pretty. Similar to the purple bunch grass – not sure how to characterize the difference really as I haven’t had much exposure to the purple one. I’m going to blog about it if I get a minute! It’s very easy to grow but I recommend putting seedlings or even seeds directly into gallon pots – my gallons are huge compared with anything in a smaller pot.

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