SPECIES: Hesperostipa comata
Zlatnik, Elena. 1999. Hesperostipa comata.
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/plants/graminoid/hescom/all.html .
The fully documented scientific name of needle-and-thread grass is Hesperostipa comata (Trin. & Rupr.) Barkworth (Poaceae) [79,129]. There are 2 recognized subspecies, H. c. ssp. comata, and H. c. ssp. intermedia (Scribner & Tweedy) Barkworth . Some authors identify these infrataxa as varieties [36,80,87].
No special status
Needle-and-thread grass grows throughout the western and midwestern United States and Canada, from the Yukon to California, east to Ontario, Indiana, and Texas, and south into Mexico. There are outlying populations in Rhode Island and New York [79,122].
FRES21 Ponderosa pine
FRES30 Desert shrub
FRES31 Chaparral-mountain shrub
FRES36 Mountain grasslands
FRES38 Plains grasslands
FRES40 Desert grasslands
AZ   CA CO ID IL
KS MI MN MS MO MT NE
NV NM NY ND OK OR RI
SD TX UT WA WI WY
AB BC MB NT ON SK YK
1 Northern Pacific Border
2 Cascade Mountains
3 Southern Pacific Border
4 Sierra Mountains
5 Columbia Plateau
6 Upper Basin and Range
7 Lower Basin and Range
8 Northern Rocky Mountains
10 Wyoming Basin
12 Colorado Plateau
13 Rocky Mountain Piedmont
14 Great Plains
15 Black Hills Uplift
16 Upper Missouri Basin and Broken Lands
K011 Western ponderosa forest
K016 Eastern ponderosa forest
K017 Black Hills pine forest
K018 Pine-Douglas-fir forest
K019 Arizona pine forest
K022 Great Basin pine forest
K023 Juniper-pinyon woodland
K024 Juniper steppe woodlands
K037 Mountain-mahogany-oak scrub
K038 Great Basin sagebrush
K055 Sagebrush steppe
K056 Wheatgrass-needlegrass shrubsteppe
K057 Galleta-threeawn shrubsteppe
K063 Foothills prairie
K070 Sandsage-bluestem prairie
K075 Nebraska Sandhills prairie
K086 Juniper-oak savanna
210 Interior Douglas-fir
220 Rocky Mountain juniper
237 Interior ponderosa pine
101 Bluebunch wheatgrass
105 Antelope bitterbrush-Idaho fescue
110 Ponderosa pine-grassland
301 Bluebunch wheatgrass-blue grama
302 Bluebunch wheatgrass-Sandberg bluegrass
303 Bluebunch wheatgrass-western wheatgrass
304 Idaho fescue-bluebunch wheatgrass
310 Needle-and-thread-blue grama
311 Rough fescue-bluebunch wheatgrass
314 Big sagebrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
317 Bitterbrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
320 Black sagebrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
322 Curlleaf mountain-mahogany-bluebunch wheatgrass
401 Basin big sagebrush
403 Wyoming big sagebrush
404 Threetip sagebrush
405 Black sagebrush
406 Low sagebrush
412 Juniper-pinyon woodland
413 Gambel oak
414 Salt desert shrub
415 Curlleaf mountain-mahogany
602 Bluestem-prairie sandreed
603 Prairie sandreed-needlegrass
605 Sandsage prairie
611 Blue grama-buffalograss
613 Fescue grassland
720 Sand bluestem-little bluestem (dunes)
721 Sand bluestem-little bluestem (plains)
722 Sand sagebrush-mixed prairie
724 Sideoats grama-New Mexico feathergrass-winterfat
Needle-and-thread grass appears in many habitat types, including forested, grassland, and shrub-steppe communities.
In Utah, needle-and-thread grass occurs in the wheatgrass-bluegrass (Triticeae-Poa spp.) rangelands with bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata), Sandberg bluegrass (Poa secunda), Cusick bluegrass (P. cusickii), Indian ricegrass (Achnatherum hymenoides), sand dropseed (Sporobolus cryptandrus), globemallow (Sphaeralcea spp.), balsamroot (Balsamorhiza spp.), yarrow (Achillea spp.), phlox (Phlox spp.), paintbrush (Castilleja spp.), and milkvetch (Astragalus spp.) .
Needle-and-thread grass also appears in the saltbush-greasewood (Atriplex spp.-Sarcobatus spp.) type in Utah with shadscale (Atriplex confertifolia), rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus spp.), winterfat (Krascheninnikovia lanata), budsage (Artemisia spinescens), greenmolly (Kochia americana), spineless horsebrush (Tetradymia canescens), hopsage (Grayia spp.), Gardner's saltbush (Atriplex gardneri), Indian ricegrass, sand dropseed, galleta (Hilaria jamesii), greasewood, saltgrass (Distichlis spp.), alkali sacaton (Sporobolus airoides), seepweed (Suaeda spp.), and pickleweed (Allearolfea occidentalis) .
Other common associates of needle-and-thread grass include Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma), Colorado pinyon (Pinus edulis), ponderosa pine (P. ponderosa), big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), black sagebrush (A. nova), sand sagebrush (A. filifolia), low sagebrush (A. arbuscula), silver sagebrush (A. cana), threetip sagebrush (A. tripartita), antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata), serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis), threadleaf sedge (Carex filifolia), mountain muhly (Muhlenbergia montana), prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), elk sedge (Carex geyeri), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), and prairie sandreed (Calamovilfa longifolia).
Vegetation typings in which needle-and-thread appears as a dominant include:
Vegetation and soils of the Rock Springs Watershed 
Vegetation and soils of the Duckwater Watershed 
Habitat types of the Curlew National Grassland, Idaho 
A reconsideration of grassland classification in the northern Great Plains of North America 
Forest vegetation of eastern Washington and northern Idaho 
Structure and ecology of coniferous forests of the northern Rocky Mountains 
Plant communities and habitat types in the Lava Beds National Monument, California 
The many faces of South Dakota rangelands: description and classification 
Selected habitat types of the Custer National Forest 
The vegetation of the Grand River/Cedar River, Sioux, and Ashland Districts of the Custer National Forest: a habitat type classification 
The vegetation of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota: a habitat type classification 
Characteristics of the Stipa comata-Bouteloua gracilis-Bouteloua curtipendula association in northern Colorado 
The vegetation of Alberta 
Aspen community types of the Intermountain Region 
Needle-and-thread grass is widespread throughout the West and can be important to livestock and wildlife, especially early in the spring. The plant is preferred forage of black-tailed jackrabbits [4,38], black-tailed prairie dogs, northern pocket gophers , and desert cottontails .
Needle-and-thread grass is moderately palatable to wildlife and domestic stock. The plant provides highly palatable early spring forage in Utah and fodder in fall and winter, but the summer fruit has a sharp awn that may injure grazing animals, especially domestic sheep [21,78,85,128,130]. Throughout the West, needle-and-thread grass is moderately important spring forage for mule deer, but use declines considerably as more preferred forages become available in summer .
Animal use of needle-and-thread grass is as follows [11,38,51,67,69,72,81,94,107,117,126]:
|Elk||----||----||medium||----||medium (in Oct.)|
|Crude fiber (%)||29.0|
|Ether extract (%)||2.6|
|N-free extract (%)||44.1|
|Vit. A equiv. (IU/g)||147.0|
Needle-and-thread grass is useful for stabilizing eroded or degraded sites [79,94,115]. The presence of the long and tough seed awn on needle-and-thread grass reduces is usefulness as a commercial seed , but needle-and-thread grass hay has been used successfully in revegetation projects. In Saskatchewan, needle-and-thread grass and Canadian needlegrass (Hesperostipa spartea) mulch was used as a seed source and erosion blanket on a steep south-facing slope . At a mining revegetation site near Colstrip, Montana, needle-and-thread grass successfully established on plots covered in native hay harvested locally on July 6. Ninety-two percent of the cover at the site from which the hay was harvested was needle-and-thread grass.
A south-facing slope on a sodium chloride contaminated mine site in North Dakota was vegetated with a mix of native grasses including needle-and-thread grass. Establishment of needle-and-thread grass after 2 years was still very low and insignificantly better on the actively reclaimed site than on the control .
Needle-and-thread grass greens up early in the spring [65,78] and may be subject to overgrazing if other forage is not available . The plant goes dormant in summer, but given sufficient moisture, needle-and-thread grass will green up again in the fall . The plant is particularly sensitive to defoliation from June 1 to July 31 . Clipping treatments in an Idaho study caused the highest mortality in July and August . Needle-and-thread grass is considered a decreaser under domestic livestock grazing pressure by most authors [8,13,23,25,26,28,33,45,84,113,120,], although others claim needle-and-thread grass increases under or is unaffected by grazing pressure [2,3,25,50,85,86,88,97]. At the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory Site, relative cover and density of needle-and-thread grass significantly (p<0.05) increased over 10 years of cattle grazing in a big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata)/Indian ricegrass (Achnatherum hymenoides)-needle-and-thread grass habitat type .
Prairie dog activity can have a profound effect on needle-and-thread grass communities. Only 2 years after the establishment of a black-tailed prairie dog colony on a South Dakota buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides)-Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis)-needle-and-thread grass site, needle-and-thread grass no longer dominated. By 4 to 6 years of colonization, needle-and-thread grass had dropped from 97% frequency to less than 10% frequency [5,6].
Needle-and-thread grass is a cool-season, native, perennial bunchgrass . The bunches are small, from 1 to 3 inches (2.5-7.6 cm) in diameter, and widely spaced .
Needle-and-thread grass is shallow-rooted  to medium-rooted and produces numerous fibrous roots of 0.04 inches (1 mm) or less in diameter . Roots grow both vertically and laterally, more than 14 inches (36 cm) from the base of the plant in the first 0.5 foot (0.15 m) of soil. These profusely branched roots reach 3 to more than 5 feet (0.9-1.5 m) deep [34,57,116,127,126,128], but more than 50% of the total root biomass is within the first 0.6 foot (0.2 m) of soil . In a Saskatchewan prairie, number of roots per shoot of needle-and-thread grass averaged 3.8 to 5.4, and the mean number of lateral roots per decimeter of main root was 39 to 75 .
Needle-and-thread grass is moderately to highly drought resistant [10,101,116,128] and recovers well from drought [53,116].
Needle-and-thread grass is colonized by vesicular-arbuscular mycorrhizae (VAM). In a study in northern Nevada, 83% of plants within a grazing exclosure were colonized with VAM, while only 33% of grazed plants were colonized, a significant (p<0.05) difference .
Propagation is by seed  and by tillers [1,46,128]. Seeds are long-lived. Sixty-three percent of seeds stored in an open warehouse in Utah germinated after 9 years . Seeds may germinate in spring or fall, but more commonly in the fall .
Because of a long awn on the seed, needle-and-thread grass seeds can imbed themselves in the soil by a twisting action of the awn in response to daily humidity changes [52,92].
Needle-and-thread grass seeds are not a prominent component of soil seedbanks. Hassan and West  studied soil seedbank properties under burned and unburned Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. wyomingensis)-Utah juniper-bunchgrass sites in Utah. Despite relatively high presence of needle-and-thread grass as ground cover, there were very few viable needle-and-thread grass seeds in the upper 2 inches (5 cm) of soil on both the burned and unburned treatments.
In a Nebraska sandhills prairie site, needle-and-thread grass contributed the fewest seeds to the 0 to 2 inch (0-5 cm) depth seedbank of several perennial grasses . Only 2% of needle-and-thread grass seeds germinated in greenhouse germination trials.
Needle-and-thread grass is common on dry hills and plains, and on stony and sandy soils throughout its range [36,130]. Soils are usually slightly high pH, low water-holding capacity, low clay percentage and high bulk density . On the Upper Snake River Plains in Idaho, needle-and-thread grass is common on sandy soils and dry areas . In southwestern Saskatchewan, needle-and-thread grass often dominates on loam soils but is usually absent from heavy clays .
Needle-and-thread grass occurs on well-drained soils from 660 to 11,550 feet (200-3500 m) in California . In Arizona, needle-and-thread grass occurs from 3,500 to 8,500 feet (1061-2576 m) on dry hills, open woods, and sandy soils, often with juniper . In Montana, needle-and-thread is found from 2,000 to 8,000 feet (606-2424) . In Utah, needle-and-thread occurs from 3,498 to 10,065 feet (106-3050 m) .
Needle-and-thread grass generally requires at least 10 inches (254 mm) of annual precipitation  but grows in areas with less . In Montana, needle-and-thread grass grows best with 10-18 inches (254-457 mm) of precipitation . The aspect on which needle-and-thread grass appears most frequently varies by geographic location. In the sandhills of Nebraska, needle-and-thread grass is commonly found on north-facing slopes . In Saskatchewan, needle-and-thread grass reaches highest densities on warm, dry, upper, south-facing slopes . In Alberta, needle-and-thread grass is largely restricted to south-facing slopes and is most dense on the upper slopes . In eastern Colorado, needle-and-thread grass is most common on north and east-facing slopes .In Montana, needle-and-thread grass performs worst on southwest slopes .
At the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory Site, density and frequency of needle-and-thread grass was significantly (p<0.01) correlated with April precipitation, but not with May or June precipitation .
Needle-and-thread grass is generally a mid-seral species. Needle-and-thread is considered an early seral species in Montana  and Wyoming , following the 1st annual forbs and grasses and biennial forbs. Needle-and-thread grass is a mid-successional species in semi-arid big sagebrush communities in Colorado .
Freeman and Emlen  evaluated interspecific competition in a cold desert shrub community in western Utah. They found needle-and-thread grass was negatively affected by competition with Indian ricegrass, galleta, blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), shadscale, saltbush, winterfat, and cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), and positively associated with the forbs sand dropseed and red threeawn (Aristida purpurea).
Germination of needle-and-thread grass seeds is strongly inhibited by aqueous extracts of absinth wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) but positively affected by extracts of fringed sagewort (A. frigida) and tarragon (A. dracunculus) .
In wetter than average moisture conditions, needle-and-thread grass may be replaced by wheatgrass (Triticeae) and Canadian needlegrass .
Needle-and-thread grass becomes dormant during hot weather, but it will green up again in the fall given sufficient precipitation [92,128]. According to Wright , needle-and-thread grass never becomes truly dormant in the summer in Idaho.
Seasonal development of needle-and-thread grass in the Great Plains is as follows :
|Growth resumes||Late March, early April|
|Ripe seeds shed||July|
|Heads fully out||6/18|
|Flowers in bloom||6/22|
FIRE REGIMES: Find 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".
The fire took place on September 14, 1995. Temperatures were 82 to 84 degrees Fahrenheit (28-29 oC), relative humidity was 17%, and winds were 8 to 12 miles/h (13-19 km/h).
The burn took place at Iron Springs Bench, Dinosaur National Monument, Dinosaur, Colorado.
The study plots represented two prefire communities--a big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata)/grass community dominated by sagebrush, thickspike wheatgrass (Elymus lanceolatus), needle-and-thread grass (Hesperostipa comata), and Indian ricegrass (Achnatherum hymenoides), and a perennial grassland featuring the same grass species.
Grasses were dormant, mature plants with current year inflorescences.
Fire behavior on the big sagebrush/grass plots was as follows:
|Rate of spread||flame length||flaming front||residence time in sagebrush|
|1809-2010 m/h||3 m||3-4.5 m||20 sec. or less|
Fire characteristics were not measured in the perennial grass plot. However, residence time was apparently lower, around 10 seconds, due to lower fuel loading.
On the sagebrush/grass plots, 74% of needle-and-thread grass plants regenerated from the caudex in 1996, the year following the burn. In 1996, only 4% of the surviving plants produced seed, but by 1997, 100% produced seed. In 1997, 6 plants that were absent (and presumed killed) in 1996 resprouted and produced seed, and 5 plants present in 1996 were not found in 1997.
On the perennial grass plots, 92% of plants regenerated from the caudex in 1996, 1 year after the burn. By 1997, regeneration was 99%. In 1996, 14% of plants produced seed, but by 1997, 99% did.
Needle-and-thread grass regenerates following fire from the surviving underground root system. Plants that fail to regenerate or produce seed in the 1st season following fire may still recover in the 2nd year.
Zlatnik, Elena, compiler. 1999. Effects of prescribed fire on needle-and-thread grass in a Idaho big sagebrush/bunchgrass community on the Snake River Plains. In: Hesperostipa comata. 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/ [ ].
Blaisdell, James P. 1953. Ecological effects of planned burning of sagebrush-grass range on the Upper Snake River Plains. Tech. Bull. 1975. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. 39 p. .
August 1936/severity not given
U.S. Sheep Experiment Station, 11 miles northeast of Dubois, Clark County, Idaho
This was a big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata)/bunchgrass site, with 35% perennial grasses, including thickspike wheatgrass (Elymus lanceolatus), plains reedgrass (Calamagrostis montanesis), sedges (Carex spp.), junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), Sandberg bluegrass (Poa secunda), and needle-and-thread grass (Hesperostipa comata); 5% perennial forbs; 5% annual forbs; 40% big sagebrush; and 15% downy rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus var. puberulus), spineless gray horsebrush (Tetradymia canescens var. inermis), and miscellaneous other shrubs.
Seeds had been disseminated and plants were dry or nearly dry. The site had not been grazed the previous growing season in order to have sufficient fuels to carry the fire.
The study site was at approximately 6,000 feet (1830 m) elevation, with 11 inches (279 mm) annual precipitation, with sandy soils of basaltic origin. Dry southwestern winds during the summer months make this an arid site, with 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38°C) temperatures possible in the summer and -35 degrees Fahrenheit (-37°C) in the winter.
The fire burned in a mosaic pattern, with scattered unburned islands. Immediately following the burn, the study plots were classified according to the following definitions: 1) heavily burned—trunk or main stem of big sagebrush consumed, 2) moderately burned—larger branches of sagebrush remaining but smaller ones consumed, 3) lightly burned—only leaves consumed, and 4)unburned—no evidence of fire in brush or understory.
Production of needle-and-thread grass following the fires was not significantly different under any treatment.
The author concluded that needle-and-thread grass would experience a 1st year set back in production following burning, and then increase production in the following years. Needle-and-thread grass was not reduced by the burn.
Zlatnik, Elena, compiler. 1999. Needle-and-thread grass response to spring burning in western South Dakota. In: Hesperostipa comata. 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/ [ ].
Gartner, F. R.; Lindsey, J. R. 1986. Vegetation responses to spring burning in western South Dakota. In: Clambey, Gary K.; Pemble, Richard H., eds. The prairie: past, present and future: Proceedings, 9th North American prairie conference; 1984 July 29 - August 1; Moorhead, MN. Fargo, ND: Tri-College University Center for Environmental Studies: 143-146. .
April 21, 1976/severity not given
Wind Cave National Park, Black Hills, South Dakota.
This was a ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) and mixed-grass prairie site, featuring a western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii)-needle-and-thread grass plant community. Species present included green needlegrass (Nassella viridula), bluegrasses (Poa spp.), grama grasses (Bouteloua spp.), sedges (Carex spp.), forbs, and shrubs.
Needle-and-thread grass was in early growth.
The study area was located on a nearly level bench, with average annual precipitation of 16.6 inches (422 mm), mostly in the summer. The soils in the study area were deep silt loams, derived from underlying gypsiferous red shales. Silty clay subsoils layers were calcareous at about 15 inches (38 cm).
Conditions at the time of the fire were: winds southeast 8 to 12 mph (19-24 km/h), temperature 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 °C), and relative humidity 40%. Most of the area was burned with a strip-headfire and a flank fire, due to shifting winds.
In 1976, the year of the fire, needle-and-thread grass yield was significantly (p<0.10) higher in the burn than in the unburned control. In the following year, yield was significantly lower. The year following the burn received lower than average annual precipitation, and mean yields of all vegetation measured were lower on both burned and unburned plots. The authors attributed this decrease to droughty conditions.
Flowering was stimulated on the burned needle-and-thread grass plots for the 1st season following the fire (1976).
The authors concluded that burning increased the yields of desirable native species, decreased the presence of exotics, and had a net benefit on the health of the study sites.
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