Sheep Fescue, not native to North America

Sheep Fescue (Festuca ovina) is not native to North America. Here’s a little history.

Festuca ovina was originally described about 250 yearas ago from Scandinavian specimens. In 1880, European grass expert Hackel wrote an influential monograph on fescues. He worked to show the differences among fescues while at the same time recognizing their similarities. He placed most of the fine-leaved fescues within a few variable “species.”

One of those species was Festuca ovina, Sheep Fescue. Within Sheep Fescue Hackel included fine-leaved bunchgrass fescues from Europe, Asia, and North America. These fescues varied in structure and ecology. Hackel recognized these variation as subspecies, varieties, and subvarieties of F. ovina. Although all “F. ovina” shared the overall look, the subtaxa differ in habitat as well as leaf structure, awn length, lemma length, leaf color, and a host of other details.  Also, many of these forms fail to produce fertile offspring when crossed.  Hackel’s F. ovina species concept was gradually rejected as overly broad.

As botanists and agronomists became more familiar with the fescues, they began separating the more distinct units as species in their own right. At one time, Festuca ovina included such North American fescues as Idaho Fescue (F. idahoensis), Roemer’s Fescue (F. roemeri), Western Fescue (F. occidentalis), Rocky Mountain Fescue (F. saximontana), Alpine Fescue (F. brachyphylla), and Tiny Fescue (F. minutiflora). However, these fescues differ greatly in ecology and their structural differences are real though easily overlooked. By 1969 when Hitchcock et al. published Vascular Plants of the Pacific Northwest, only a few alpine and arctic fescues remained within what was left of the broad Festuca ovina concept.

Since then, further surgery has been performed on the Festuca ovina species concept. Now, the name Festuca ovina is restricted to an arctic/alpine bunchgrass of northern Europe. It is not native to North America.

 

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