SPECIES: Danthonia spicata



Covington, Daniel. 2000. Danthonia spicata. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ [].




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poverty oatgrass
poverty danthonia
poverty grass


The currently accepted scientific name of poverty oatgrass is Danthonia spicata (L.) Beauv. ex. Roem. & Schult. (Poaceae) [20,21,25,27,57].




No special status


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SPECIES: Danthonia spicata

Poverty oatgrass inhabits much of the United States. It is distributed from British Columbia east to Newfoundland and south to Florida, New Mexico, and Mexico [11,20,21,25,57]. The Natural Resources Conservation Service provides a map of poverty oatgrass' distribution in the United States (http://plants.usda.gov/plants/cgi_bin/topics.cgi).


FRES10 White-red-jack pine
FRES11 Spruce-fir
FRES12 Longleaf-slash pine
FRES13 Loblolly-shortleaf pine
FRES14 Oak-pine
FRES15 Oak-hickory
FRES17 Elm-ash-cottonwood
FRES18 Maple-beech-birch
FRES19 Aspen-birch
FRES21 Ponderosa pine
FRES23 Fir-spruce
FRES26 Lodgepole pine
FRES36 Mountain grasslands
FRES38 Plains grasslands
FRES39 Prairie






2 Cascade Mountains
5 Columbia Plateau
8 Northern Rocky Mountains
9 Middle Rocky Mountains
10 Wyoming Basin
11 Southern Rocky Mountains
12 Colorado Plateau
13 Rocky Mountain Piedmont
14 Great Plains
15 Black Hills Uplift


K010 Ponderosa shrub forest
K011 Western ponderosa forest
K016 Eastern ponderosa forest
K017 Black Hills pine forest
K047 Fescue-oatgrass
K050 Fescue-wheatgrass
K051 Wheatgrass-bluegrass
K063 Foothills prairie
K064 Grama-needlegrass-wheatgrass
K065 Grama-buffalo grass
K066 Wheatgrass-needlegrass
K067 Wheatgrass-bluestem-needlegrass
K068 Wheatgrass-grama-buffalo grass
K069 Bluestem-grama prairie
K093 Great Lakes spruce-fir forest
K095 Great Lakes pine forest
K096 Northeastern spruce-fir forest
K098 Northern floodplain forest
K099 Maple-basswood forest
K100 Oak-hickory
K101 Elm-ash forest
K102 Beech-maple forest
K103 Mixed mesophytic forest
K104 Appalachian oak forest
K106 Northern hardwoods
K107 Northern hardwoods-fir forest
K108 Northern hardwoods-spruce forest
K109 Transition between K104 and K106
K110 Northeastern oak-pine forest
K111 Oak-hickory-pine
K112 Southern mixed forest


1 Jack pine
5 Balsam fir
15 Red pine
16 Aspen
17 Pin cherry
20 White pine-northern red oak-red maple
21 Eastern white pine
22 White pine-hemlock
39 Black ash-American elm-red maple
40 Post oak-blackjack oak
42 Bur oak
45 Pitch pine
52 White oak-black oak-northern red oak
55 Northern red oak
70 Longleaf pine
71 Longleaf pine-scrub oak
76 Shortleaf pine-oak
82 Loblolly pine-hardwood
201 White spruce
203 Balsam poplar
218 Lodgepole pine


101 Bluebunch wheatgrass
102 Idaho fescue
103 Green fescue
109 Ponderosa pine shrubland
110 Ponderosa pine-grassland
215 Valley grassland
216 Montane meadows
218 Lodgepole pine
237 Interior ponderosa pine
251 White spruce-aspen
253 Black spruce-white spruce
254 Black spruce-paper birch
301 Bluebunch wheatgrass-blue grama
302 Bluebunch wheatgrass-Sandberg bluegrass
303 Bluebunch wheatgrass-western wheatgrass
310 Needle-and-thread-blue grama
411 Aspen woodland
502 Grama-galleta
601 Bluestem prairie
604 Bluestem-grama prairie
606 Wheatgrass-bluestem-needlegrass
607 Wheatgrass-needlegrass
611 Blue grama-buffalo grass
613 Fescue grassland
704 Blue grama-western wheatgrass
705 Blue grama-galleta
709 Bluestem-grama
710 Bluestem prairie
714 Grama-bluestem
717 Little bluestem-Indiangrass-Texas wintergrass
802 Missouri prairie
809 Mixed hardwood and pine
920 White spruce-paper birch


Poverty oatgrass is a component in many grass, shrub, and forest habitats. Despite its abundance, poverty oatgrass is not cited as a habitat type indicator species because it is a secondary successor on burned and anthropogenically disturbed sites. Common eastern and prairie associates of poverty oatgrass include lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), junegrasses (Koelaria spp.), threeawans (Aristida spp.), panicgrasses (Panicum spp.), wheatgrasses (Triticeae), fescues (Festuca spp.), needlegrasses (Achnatherum spp.), and bluegrasses (Poa spp.) [15,33,36,42,46,50,58].


SPECIES: Danthonia spicata

Importance of poverty oatgrass to wildlife and livestock is limited to early season utilization. However, palatability and preference vary according to local growing conditions and relative abundance of other forage [40].


Most sources cite poverty oatgrass as rather unpalatable to livestock throughout the growing season [8,13,22,40]. However, Skovlin and others [45] found that poverty oatgrass was second only to bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata) for utilization by cattle over an 8-year period at 3 different stocking levels. This study, conducted in the ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa)/bunchgrass range of the Pacific Northwest, showed heaviest use of poverty oatgrass during season-long and deferred grazing rotations. If utilized by domestic and wild ungulates, poverty oatgrass' young green blades are preferred in early spring and summer for optimal palatability. Poverty oatgrass is much less palatable by midsummer [15]. The palatability of poverty oatgrass for wildlife in Wyoming has been rated as follows [13]:

pronghorn poor
elk good
mule deer poor
white-tailed deer poor
small nongame birds poor
upland game birds poor
waterfowl poor


Compared to graminoid associates, nutritional value of poverty oatgrass is low. Ungulate use is generally restricted to early season when protein value is optimal [15].


Given the low-growing stature of poverty oatgrass, cover value for large mammals is negligible. However, Dittberner and Olson [13] found that poverty oatgrass provides fair cover value for small mammals, small nongame birds, and upland game birds in Wyoming.


Poverty oatgrass inhabits sites of varying nutrient and moisture content. However, special interest is given to its ability to establish and succeed on sites of particularly poor nutrient and moisture regimes, such as roadsides [22]. It protects soil from erosion and excessive nutrient leaching, and is frost-heave resistant. Poverty oatgrass also has the ability to inhabit acidic soils (pH 4.5-4.7) [54]. Most sources cite poverty oatgrass as a common secondary successor and valuable erosion controller of fire-disturbed areas and clearcuts in the eastern United States [10].


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Poverty oatgrass serves as an excellent indicator of low-fertility agricultural and pasture lands. Its presence and increase in the absence of fire may imply declining soil conditions and overuse [11,22,52]. Active grazing usually favors an increase in the abundance of poverty oatgrass. This is attributed to the almost basal location of cleistogamous flowers, which are generally out of reach and not removed by cattle grazing [9].

The herbicide hexazinone has proven effective in reducing competition imposed by poverty oatgrass and bluegrasses in lowbush blueberry fields in Michigan [58].


SPECIES: Danthonia spicata

Poverty oatgrass is a cool-season, native, perennial bunchgrass. Roots are fibrous without rhizomes or stolons, and most of the foliage occurs as a crowed basal clump of leaves. Curved or twisted leaves are 4 to 6 inches (10-15 cm) long and persist with age. The inflorescence is a constricted panicle containing 2 to 13 spikelets. Both male and female flower parts appear on each individual. Florets that cross-fertilize (chasmogamous) are located on the aerial panicle and contain more pollen grains than the unopened, self-fertilized florets (cleistogamous) that are located inside 1 or more of the leaf sheaths throughout their development. Floret lemmas have twisted awns with long, stiff hairs, both of which aid in dispersal [11,22].

Research in a pine-hardwood forest in Michigan found that poverty oatgrass has a population half-life of 2.2 years [42].




Poverty oatgrass reproduces by seed and by tillering [11]. Its production of cleistogamous flowers and chasmogamous flowers makes this species highly self-compatible and often dominant in favorable growing conditions. Chasmogamous florets are more abundant than self-fertile florets. Cleistogamous florets occur most frequently in plants growing on disturbed, grazed, wooded, and mountainous areas [9]. The presence of both flower types in varying proportions yields 2 different reproductive strategies. However, seed production through self-pollination in closed florets is most common [35].

While conducting a study on poverty oatgrass reproduction, Clay [9] observed that healthy plants set seed in all 200 of observed florets of both flower types. Pronounced twisted and pubescent awns aid in seed dispersal. Maximum germination of seeds was investigated by Toole [51]. Seeds taken from the Shenandoah National Forest in Virginia germinated best when temperatures were alternated between room temperature and 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 oC). A 71% sulfuric acid treatment weakened the seed coat, facilitating germination. Prechilling the seeds at 37 degrees Fahrenheit (3 oC) before room temperature germination with a potassium nitrate treatment was also effective. 

Seeds of poverty oatgrass are highly dormant but germinate readily on exposed mineral soil. Even if the aboveground population no longer exists, seeds may remain in soil for decades before a disturbance such as fire initiates another population [43].


Poverty oatgrass most commonly inhabits low fertility, sandy or rocky, well-drained soils of old fields, pastures, roadsides, and woodland margins characterized by low soil moisture [11,14,15,22,28]. Poverty oatgrass also inhabits clearcuts, burns, and trampled ground of flat and mountainous areas throughout much of the eastern United States [10]. Poverty oatgrass tends to inhabit shallow A horizons overlying substrates such as limestone, marble rock, sandstone, granite, siltstone, clay, and chert [7,23,26,36].


Poverty oatgrass is a secondary successor of burned and/or cut sites, old fields, and old pastureland [14,15,19,38,47]. It is a common pioneer on northeastern coastal sandplains and old domestic sheep pastures [14]. Its ability to colonize after disturbance is attributed to long periods of seed dormancy  [31]. Optimally growing in high light, conditions are most favorable for poverty oatgrass during early years of succession [42]. As competition for light and other resources increases, poverty oatgrass populations decrease [3]. Individuals appearing in mid-late successional stages of natural reforestation allocate most resources to reproductive efforts in order to continue the population [43].

Some barren and alvar ecosystems are kept in early succession by repeated fires [7,46]. Smith and Sparling [46] found poverty oatgrass was a persistent member of jack pine (Pinus banksiana) barrens maintained by frequent fire. A prairie and savanna restoration study conducted in central Wisconsin showed marked increases in poverty oatgrass populations with increased prescribed burning [4]. However, it should be noted that some grasslands dominated by poverty oatgrass might be drought-dependent, not fire-dependent [7].


In the southern and eastern United States, poverty oatgrass begins active growth in early spring. Flowers develop and bloom from late spring to early June. Seed maturation and shattering closely follow pollination. Poverty oatgrass is commonly dormant during the hot summer months. A period of vegetative growth may occur when temperatures decrease in early fall. In Canada, seasonal development occurs a few weeks later as a result of temperature and photoperiod restrictions [11,28].


SPECIES: Danthonia spicata

Poverty oatgrass has adapted to fire by tillering and establishing from seed after top-kill [32,34,42].


Fire regimes for plant communities and ecosystems in which poverty oatgrass occurs are summarized below. Find further fire regime information for the plant communities in which this species may occur by entering the species name in the FEIS home page under "Find Fire Regimes".
Community or Ecosystem Dominant Species Fire Return Interval Range in Years
maple-beech-birch Acer-Fagus-Betula > 1000
sugar maple A. saccharum > 1000
sugar maple-basswood A. s.-Tilia americana > 1000 [5]
bluestem prairie Andropogon gerardii var. gerardii-Schizachyrium scoparium < 10 [5,29]
Nebraska sandhills prairie A. g. var. paucipilus-Schizachyrium scoparium < 10
plains grasslands Bouteloua spp. < 35
blue grama-buffalo grass B. gracilis-Buchloe dactyloides < 35
sugarberry-America elm-green ash Celtis laevigata-Ulmus americana-Fraxinus pennsylvanica < 35 to 200
beech-sugar maple Fagus spp.-Acer saccharum > 1000
juniper-oak savanna Juniperus ashei-Quercus virginiana < 35
yellow-poplar Liriodendron tulipifera < 35
wheatgrass plains grasslands Pascopyrum smithii < 35
Great Lakes spruce-fir Picea-Abies spp. 35 to > 200
northeastern spruce-fir Picea-Abies spp. 35-200
southeastern spruce-fir Picea-Abies spp. 35 to > 200 [5]
Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine* Pinus contorta var. latifolia 25-300+ [1,39]
shortleaf pine P. echinata 2-15
shortleaf pine-oak P. e.-Quercus spp. < 10
longleaf pine-scrub oak P. palustris-Quercus spp. 6-10 [5]
red pine (Great Lakes region) P. resinosa 10-200 (10)** [5,17]
red-white-jack pine* P. r.-P. strobus-P. banksiana 10-300 [5]
pitch pine P. rigida 6-25 [6,24]
eastern white pine P. strobus 35-200
eastern white pine-eastern hemlock P. s.-Tsuga canadensis 35-200
eastern white pine-northern red oak-red maple P. s.-Quercus rubra-Acer rubrum 35-200
loblolly-shortleaf pine P. taeda-P.echinata 10 to < 35
Virginia pine-oak P.virginiana-Quercus spp. 10 to < 35
aspen-birch Populus tremuloides-Betula papyrifera 35-200 [5]
mountain grasslands Pseudoroegneria spicata 3-40 (10)** [1]
oak-hickory Quercus-Carya spp. < 35
northeastern oak-pine Quercus-Pinus spp. 10 to < 35
southeastern oak-pine Quercus-Pinus spp. < 10
white oak-black oak-northern red oak Q. alba-Q. velutina-Q. rubra < 35
chestnut oak Q. prinus 3-8
northern red oak Q. rubra 10 to < 35
post oak-blackjack oak Q. stellata-Q. marilandica < 10
black oak Q. velutina < 35
little bluestem-grama prairie Schizachyrium scoparium-Bouteloua spp. < 35
eastern hemlock-yellow birch Tsuga canadensis-Betula alleghaniensis > 200
elm-ash-cottonwood Ulmus-Fraxinus-Populus spp. < 35 to 200 [5]
*Fire-return interval varies widely; trends in variation are noted in the Species review.


Ground residual colonizer (on-site, initial community)
Tussock graminoid


SPECIES: Danthonia spicata

Fire usually top-kills poverty oatgrass [32,34,42].

While studying the population dynamics of poverty oatgrass during secondary succession of a pine-hardwood forest in northern lower Michigan, Scheiner [42] found that fire's predominant effect was mortality. Seventy-five percent of individuals had died in an experimental plot burned the previous summer.


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Most barrens, forested, prairie, and flatwood ecosystems show a marked increase in poverty oatgrass populations the growing season following fire [32,34,41,42,49,55,56]. Open-grown poverty oatgrass plants may produce 4.5 times more vegetative culms and 1.5 times more flowering culms than those growing in more successionally advanced communities. During the 1st few growing seasons following fire, poverty oatgrass allocates its resources to vegetative growth over reproductive effort. As the canopy of more advanced successional stages reduces light reaching the herbaceous layer, this trend reverses. In general, environmental changes imposed by successional trends contribute to a drastic population reduction 20 to 30 years following fire [42].

Despite the overwhelming evidence supporting fire's contribution to poverty oatgrass establishment and success, some grassland ecosystems show a decrease in poverty oatgrass following frequent disturbance [33,50]. While observing floristic trends of annually burned, post-agricultural little bluestem fields, Nierling and Dreyer [33] noticed a drastic decrease in poverty oatgrass. Similarly, prescribed burns in goldenrod-poverty oatgrass communities resulted in a 26% decrease of poverty oatgrass frequency, while unburned fields supported contiguous poverty oatgrass plants. In this particular community type, fire temporarily promoted forb dominance followed by a slow emergence of poverty oatgrass [50].


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Poverty oatgrass is usually associated with frequent burning. Its population maintenance in open woodland and woodland-grassland margins is certainly dependent upon fire [34,49,55]. Conversely, successional advancement in the absence of fire may result in very small populations of poverty oatgrass. 

No published sources provide fuel management, fire behavior, or fire use planning information concerning poverty oatgrass.

Danthonia spicata: References

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3. Bever, James C. 1994. Feedback between plants and their soil communities in an old field community. Ecology. 75(7): 1965-1977. [24157]

4. Blewett, Thomas. 1978. Prairie and savanna restoration in the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. In: Glenn-Lewin, David C.; Landers, Roger Q., Jr., eds. Proceedings, 5th Midwest prairie conference; 1976 August 22-24; Ames, IA. Ames, IA: Iowa State University: 154-157. [3370]

5. Brown, James K.; Smith, Jane Kapler, eds. 2000. Wildland fire in ecosystems: effects of fire on flora. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-42-vol. 2. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 257 p. [33874]

6. Buchholz, Kenneth: Good, Ralph E. 1982. Density, age structure, biomass and net annual aboveground productivity of dwarfed Pinus rigida Moll. from the New Jersey Pine Barren Plains. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club. 109(1): 24-34. [8639]

7. Catling, Paul M.; Brownell, Vivian R. 1998. Importance of fire in alvar ecosystems--evidence from the Burnt Lands, eastern Ontario. The Canadian Field Naturalist. 112(4): 661-667. [30338]

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25. Hitchcock, C. Leo; Cronquist, Arthur. 1973. Flora of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press. 730 p. [1168]

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29. Kucera, Clair L. 1981. Grasslands and fire. In: Mooney, H. A.; Bonnicksen, T. M.; Christensen, N. L.; [and others], technical coordinators. Fire regimes and ecosystem properties: Proceedings of the conference; 1978 December 11-15; Honolulu, HI. Gen. Tech. Rep. WO-26. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: 90-111. [4389]

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42. Scheiner, Samuel M. 1988. Population dynamics of an herbaceous perennial Danthonia spicata during secondary forest succession. The American Midland Naturalist. 119(2): 268-281. [4140]

43. Scheiner, Samuel M. 1989. Variable selection along a successional gradient. Evolution. 43(3): 548-562. [30421]

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45. Skovlin, Jon M.; Harris, Robert W.; Strickler, Gerald S.; Garrison, George A.. 1976. Effects of cattle grazing methods on ponderosa pine-bunchgrass range in the Pacific Northwest. Tech. Bull. No. 1531. Washington, D. C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. 40 p. [10923]

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48. Stickney, Peter F. 1989. Seral origin of species originating in northern Rocky Mountain forests. Unpublished draft on file at: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory, Missoula, MT; RWU 4403 files. 10 p. [20090]

49. Stritch, Lawrence R. 1990. Landscape-scale restoration of barrens-woodland within the oak-hickory forest mosaic. Restoration & Management Notes. 8(2): 73-77. [13750]

50. Swan, Frederick R., Jr. 1970. Post-fire response of four plant communities in south-central New York state. Ecology. 51(6): 1074-1082. [3446]

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54. Van Kley, James E.; Parker, George R. 1993. An ecological classification system for the central hardwoods region: the Hoosier National Forest. In: Gillespie, Andrew R.; Parker, George R.; Pope, Phillip E., eds. Proceedings, 9th central hardwood forest conference; 1993 March 8-10; West Lafayette, IN. Gen. Tech. Rep. NC-161. St. Paul, MN: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, North Central Forest Experiment Station: 308-326. [27015]

55. Vankat, John L.; Snyder, Gary W. 1991. Floristics of a chronosequence corresponding to old field - deciduous forest succession in southwestern Ohio. I. Undisturbed vegetation. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club. 118(4): 365-376. [18759]

56. Whittle, C.A.; Duchesne, L. C.; Needham, T. 1997. The impact of broadcast burning and fire severity on species composition and abundance of surface vegetation in a jack pine (Pinus banksiana) clear-cut. Forest Ecology and Management. 94(1/3): 141-148. [28642]

57. Wunderlin, Richard P. 1998. Guide to the vascular plants of Florida. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida. 806 p. [28655]

58. Yarborough, David E.; Bhowmik, Prasanta C. 1986. Effect of hexazinone on weeds and on lowbush blueberries in Maine. In: Proceedings of the 40th Annual Meeting of the Northeastern Weed Science Society; [Date of conference unknown]; [Location of conference unknown]. [Place of publication unknown]. [Publisher unknown]. 165-166. [9902]