SPECIES: Achnatherum hymenoides
|Basin big sagebrush/Indian ricegrass community in Harney County, Oregon. Photo courtesy of the PRBO Conservation Science Shrubsteppe Monitoring Program.|
Tirmenstein, D. 1999. Achnatherum hymenoides. 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/ .
The fully documented scientific name of Indian ricegrass is Achnatherum hymenoides (Roemer & J.A. Schultes.) Barkworth . Indian ricegrass hybridizes with various needlegrasses (Stipa spp. sensu lato) including green needlegrass (Nassella viridula) . Achnatherum contractum is a fertile derivative of an Indian ricegrass × smilo grass (Piptatherum micranthum) cross .
No special status
Indian ricegrass is widely distributed throughout the western United States. [18,113]. It occurs east of the Cascade Range from British Columbia south to southern California and northeastern Mexico and east to Alberta, the Dakotas, and Texas .
FRES21 Ponderosa pine
FRES30 Desert shrub
FRES34 Chaparral-mountain shrub
FRES38 Plains grasslands
FRES40 Desert grasslands
AR AZ CA CO ID KS MN MO MT NE NV
NM ND OK OR SD TX UT WA WI WY
3 Southern Pacific Borders
5 Columbia Plateau
6 Upper Basin and Range
7 Lower Basin and Range
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
16 Upper Missouri Basin and Broken Lands
K011 Western ponderosa forest
K012 Douglas-fir forest
K016 Eastern ponderosa pine
K019 Arizona pine forest
K023 Juniper-pinyon woodland
K037 Mountain-mahogany-oak scrub
K038 Great Basin sagebrush
K055 Sagebrush steppe
K057 Galleta-three-awn shrubsteppe
K075 Nebraska sandhills prairie
220 Rocky Mountain juniper
237 Interior Ponderosa Pine
238 Western Juniper
240 Arizona Cypress
247 Jeffrey Pine
101 Bluebunch wheatgrass
107 Western juniper/big sagebrush/bluebunch wheatgrass
109 Ponderosa pine shrubland
110 Ponderosa pine-grassland
211 Creosotebush scrub
314 Big sagebrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
320 Black sagebrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
322 Curlleaf mountain-mahogany-bluebunch wheatgrass
406 Low sagebrush
401 Basin big sagebrush
402 Mountain big sagebrush
403 Wyoming big sagebrush
405 Black sagebrush
412 Juniper-pinyon woodland
414 Salt desert shrub
415 Curlleaf mountain-mahogany
504 Juniper-pinyon pine woodland
602 Bluestem-prairie sandreed
603 Prairie sandreed-needlegrass
604 Bluestem-grama prairie
605 Sandsage prairie
611 Blue grama-buffalograss
705 Blue grama-galleta
712 Galleta-alkali sacaton
Indian ricegrass occurs throughout the sagebrush series and is present in several salt-desert shrub communities. It also grows in pinyon-juniper (Pinus-Juniperus spp.) and ponderosa pine (P. ponderosa) forest communities. It is also locally abundant in mixed-grass prairie of Canada and in sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) and desert shrub [21,58,127,129]. Common associates are needle-and-thread grass (Hesperostipa comata), sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), blue grama (B. grama), and wheatgrass (Triticeae) . Indian ricegrass often grows interspersed in open stands of big sagebrush (A. tridentata) with species such as Thurber needlegrass (S. thurberiana), Sandberg bluegrass (Poa secunda), and bottlebrush squirreltail (Elymus elymoides) . It occurs in black sagebrush (A. nova), winterfat (Krascheninnikovia lanata), and shadscale (Atriplex confertifolia) communities [58,60].
Indian ricegrass has been described as an indicator or dominant species in the following published classifications:
Classification of the forest vegetation of Colorado by habitat type and community type 
Forest vegetation on National Forests in the Rocky Mountain and Intermountain Regions: habitat and community types 
Classification of the forest vegetation on the National Forests of Arizona and New Mexico 
Trends in vegetation development on the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory Site 
A classification of forest habitat types of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado 
Sagebrush-steppe habitat types in northern Colorado: a first approximation 
Phyto-edaphic communities of the Upper Rio Puerco Watershed, New Mexico 
A sagebrush community type classification for mountainous northeastern Nevada rangelands 
Correlation between soils and sagebrush-dominated plant communities of northeastern Nevada 
Soil characteristics of mountainous northeastern Nevada sagebrush community types 
Woodland classification: the pinyon-juniper formation 
Forest and woodland habitat types (plant associations) of northern New Mexico and northern Arizona 
Shrub-steppe habitat types of Middle Park, Colorado 
Artemisia arbuscula, A. longiloba, and A. nova habitat types in northern Nevada 
Indian ricegrass has good forage value for domestic sheep, cattle, and horses. It can be important cattle forage in winter, particularly in salt desert communities [24,130]. Indian ricegrass is often used most heavily in late winter, when succulent and nutritious new green leaves are produced [59,60]. It supplies a source of green feed before most other native grasses have produced much new growth . Consequently, Indian ricegrass is often heavily grazed before animals leave winter ranges .
Indian ricegrass also produces abundant foliage in spring and early summer when it is readily eaten. It cures well and provides excellent winter forage for cattle, domestic sheep, and horses [58,107]. Domestic sheep grazing may be heavy in spring [79,89].
Beale and Smith  report that Indian ricegrass is eaten by pronghorn in "moderate" amounts whenever available. In western Utah, Indian ricegrass receives moderate pronghorn use from March through May. In Nevada it is consumed by desert bighorns, and in parts of the Rocky Mountains it is a highly valued fall elk food [20,75]. Indian ricegrass is eaten by mule deer in spring in Idaho . It is also heavily grazed by bison in August in the shortgrass prairie region .
A number of heteromyid rodents inhabiting desert rangelands show preference for seed of Indian ricegrass . Rodents known to feed on the seeds of this species include several species of kangaroo rat (such as the Great Basin kangaroo rat), pocket mice (long-tailed pocket mouse, little pocket mouse, Great Basin pocket mouse), dark kangaroo mouse, western harvest mouse, and various species of deer mice [15,68]. Although the deer mouse caches and consumes seed, it appears to be less dependent than other rodents on seed as a food source . The spotted ground squirrel consumes Indian ricegrass in southeastern New Mexico, as does Townsend's ground squirrel in the Snake River Birds of Prey Area of Idaho [15,126]. Indian ricegrass is also used by the bushy-tailed woodrat . In Colorado, black-tailed prairie dogs feed on Indian ricegrass, particularly in fall and winter .
Indian ricegrass is an important component of jackrabbit diets in spring and summer [39,49,67]. In Nevada, Indian ricegrass may even dominate jackrabbit diets during the spring through early summer months . In Utah, jackrabbits used up to 50% of the current growth during June . Intensity of use varied with topography; average use intensity of 94% was reported in the foothills, but use in the valley floor was reported to be 32% . Maccracken and Hansen  report that Indian ricegrass is an important part of the fall-winter diet of black-tailed jackrabbit in southeastern Idaho. In Utah, jackrabbits consume small amounts during mid-November . In parts of south-central Idaho, Indian ricegrass forms a "significant part" of mountain cottontail diets , particularly in spring and summer .
Indian ricegrass seed provides food for many species of birds. Doves, for example, eat large amounts of shattered Indian ricegrass seed lying on the ground .
Indian ricegrass is described as highly palatable to all classes of livestock in both green and cured condition [18,58]. Indian ricegrass has been reported as "dependably palatable" in winter . However, flowerstalks are unpalatable late in the spring and are not grazed at that time . Seeds and seedstalks are relished by domestic sheep .
Indian ricegrass does not provide enough digestible protein to meet minimum requirements for some ungulates . It is deficient in phosphorous, carotene, and digestible protein but is a relatively good energy source . Indian ricegrass seed has approximately 4058.0 calories per gram (16.1 ash-free calories per seed) .
Seeds of Indian ricegrass are large and high in protein .
Dry matter digestibility of Indian ricegrass is 50.5%, with crude protein of 3.7% . Specific food values are as follows :
Total weight (%) dry matter = 92.6 structural carbohydrates = 32.2 ash = 4.5 free water = 7.4 lignin = 8.4 crude protein = 13.1 cell walls = 43.1 acid insoluble ash = 2.5 solvent extract = 2.8 soluble ash = 2.0 cell contents = 56.9 soluble carbohydrates = 39.0 non-nutritive matter = 10.9A study involving seasonal variation of carbohydrate reserves in roots and crowns of desert range species in northern Utah indicated that the crowns of Indian ricegrass accumulate higher concentrations of total available carbohydrates than the roots. Fall depletion of both roots and crowns is common and is proportional to growth activity in the fall. Spring depletion of total available carbohydrates is less when precipitation is higher . Additional nutritional studies are available [32,101,121].
The degree to which Indian ricegrass provides cover for wildlife species has been rated as follows :
UT CO WY MT ND Elk poor ---- poor ---- ---- Mule deer poor ---- poor ---- fair White-tailed deer ---- ---- poor ---- fair Pronghorn poor ---- poor ---- poor Upland game bird good ---- poor poor ---- Waterfowl poor ---- poor ---- ---- Small nongame bird good fair fair poor ---- Small mammals good fair poor ---- ----
Indian ricegrass is well-suited for surface erosion control and desert revegetation although it is not highly effective in controlling sand movement [25,61,81]. Certain native ecotypes exhibit desirable characteristics such as drought and salinity tolerance, low seed dormancy, and good nutritional qualities . However, Indian ricegrass can be difficult to establish . Indian ricegrass can be useful in the reclamation of many arid and semiarid areas in the western United States . Typical sites include those in which vegetation has been removed due to surface mining, construction activity, brush control, heavy grazing, or fire . Indian ricegrass can be used for revegetating degraded rangelands in areas of low precipitation and has naturally revegetated overgrazed ranges in parts of Utah [110,125].
Seed is generally planted in the fall . Seeding can be accomplished through drilling or broadcasting [6,12]. Commercially available cultivars include 'Paloma' and 'Nazpar' [6,35,84,85].
As its name suggests, Indian ricegrass was traditionally eaten by some Native American peoples . The Paiutes used seed as a reserve food source .
The large-seeded panicle is often used in dry floral arrangements .
Heavy early spring grazing may sharply reduce the vigor of Indian ricegrass and decrease the stand . Plants that do survive exhibit poor vigor with short sparse foliage and dead centers, and may produce no litter or flower stalks . In eastern Idaho, productivity of Indian ricegrass was at least 10 times greater in undisturbed plots than in heavily grazed ones . In southeastern Idaho where grazing was eliminated for 25 years, Indian ricegrass increased in cover 5 fold. Both the density and basal area decreased with increasing grazing intensity in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah. The seed crop may be reduced where grazing is heavy .
However, Chambers and Norton  report that Indian ricegrass can survive or even benefit by heavy grazing. Cover actually increased on areas open to grazing on the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory . Similar increases have been observed on grazed desert ranges of Utah . In New Mexico, long-term heavy grazing (>50 years) appeared to have little effect on the root and crown biomass of Indian ricegrass and did not decrease seed production potential [84,85]. In the Four Corners region, past heavy grazing appeared to have little effect on cover, production, or density of Indian ricegrass .
Recommended use of annual growth is no more than 75% [18,59]. Indian ricegrass is apparently more tolerant of grazing after June 1 than earlier and thus responds well to spring deferment . Pearson  reports that although there may be some annual variation, this species "cannot tolerate" complete harvesting from approximately June 1 through August 10. To protect a stand, livestock can be removed while there is still sufficient moisture for the plants to recover, grow, and produce seed . Yorks and others  report that cover of Indian ricegrass increased after chaining. Changes in cover following various types of mechanical disturbance have been documented .
Indian ricegrass is a hardy, cool-season, densely tufted, native perennial bunchgrass that grows from 4 to 24 inches (10-61 cm) in height [18,23,83]. Plant spread is estimated at 8 to 12 inches (20-30 cm) . When mature, seedstalks are open, loosely branched, or with lacy tops . Spikes are erect and range from 0.8 to 2.8 inches (2-7 cm) in length . Indian ricegrass has deep, fibrous, extensive roots and is one of the most drought tolerant of the native range grasses [61,83,123]. The common name is derived from seeds that resemble grains of rice [83,111].
Plummer and others  report that Indian ricegrass naturally spreads aggressively from seed, but Valentine  describes seedling establishment as "poor" in comparison to that of other species. Plummer and Frischknecht  reported that numerous seedlings often develop in years with wet springs, while very few develop during dry springs. Therefore, years of good seedling establishment can be quite infrequent. A high degree of correlation between April precipitation and Indian ricegrass abundance has been reported .
Indian ricegrass is characterized by low seed germinability and variability in both length of dormancy and viability [15,36]. Some ecotypes require cool-moist stratification prior to germination . Lack of uniformity in seed weight, size, and thickness can contribute to nonuniform germination and establishment . Difficulties with seed shattering and seed dormancy often produce germination rates that are less than 85% . Indian ricegrass is highly self-fertile .
Seed retains viability for at least 14 years when stored in a cool, dry warehouse. Approximately 38% of Indian ricegrass seed germinated after 20 years of storage . Optimum germination temperatures are variable, but Toole  reports best success at 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20oC). Detailed information on seed storage temperatures and germination is available [26,104,109].
Seed is dispersed by rodents, wind and water . Seed caching by heteromyid rodents can produce favorable microenvironments that enhance seedling recruitment . Seed dehulling by rodents as well as mechanical scarification can improve germination [52,82]. In captive studies, kangaroo rats ate approximately 75% of Indian ricegrass seed while caching 25% .
Rapid response suggests that Indian ricegrass may tiller after fire.
Indian ricegrass grows on dry foothills, rocky valley or upper slopes, plains, and ridges [58,61,99]. It is moderately tolerant of both alkali and salt, and is adapted to soils of low fertility [29, 88]. This species is particularly well adapted to sand and attains greatest abundance on loose sandy soils where it forms almost pure stands [29,60,58]. Indian ricegrass dominates sandy soils throughout the sagebrush-grass zone . Soils supporting Indian ricegrass range in texture from coarse sand to heavy clay . It is also found on shallow shale soils .
Indian ricegrass grows in arid and semiarid climates throughout the Intermountain West . It grows mostly in areas with mesic temperature regimes and arid moisture regimes .
Indian ricegrass is a dominant perennial grass at lower elevation sites throughout the salt desert ranges of western North America . Elevational ranges of Indian ricegrass are as follows [28,77]:
4,000 to 9,500 feet (1220-2900 m) in Colorado
3,300 to 6,000 feet (1010-1830 m) in Montana
4,000 to 9,000 feet (1219-2743 m) in New Mexico
4,200 to 9,500 feet (1280-2900 m) in Utah
4,300 to 8,500 feet (1310-2590 m) in Wyoming
Koniak  reports that Indian ricegrass reaches greatest cover in early mid- to mid-seral stands following fire in pinyon-juniper communities of the Great Basin. Cover decreases by late succession . In southeastern Idaho, Indian ricegrass increased during a 25-year disturbance-free period . After approximately 20 more years, cover began to decline. In mixed-grass prairies of Colorado, Indian ricegrass plants commonly appear within the first 5 years after disturbance such as plowing . Indian ricegrass is a pioneer on blowouts and loose sands of sand sage (Artemisia filifolia) communities of northeastern Colorado . It is typically found on disturbed (but not undisturbed) sites in blackbrush (Coleogyne ramosissima) communities in parts of Nevada . Indian ricegrass is present in several climax communities including climax bunchgrass communities of Oregon . It forms part of a distinct sub-climax grassland community in parts of northern Utah .
Indian ricegrass generally flowers early prior to summer drought . In Nevada flower buds may form as early as February or March . However, flowering is indeterminate and can continue through the spring and summer if growing conditions remain favorable . Ackerman and others  reported that in the Nevada desert, Indian ricegrass flowered after spring rains, but not following summer rains. This suggests that lower temperatures may be required for flowering. Time of flowering varies as follows :
earliest flowering latest flowering CO May July MT May June ND June June WY May JulyAverage dates at which Indian ricegrass reached various developmental stages in Upper Snake Plains of southern Idaho are as follows :
Date Range (days) Standard deviation growth starts Apr 08 flowerstalks appear May 22 27 7.9 heads fully out Jun 17 26 8.6 flowers in bloom Jun 20 20 6.5 seed ripe Jul 03 21 7.3 dissemination starts Jul 06 dissemination over Jul 29 plant drying Jul 03 48 7.8 plant dried Aug 06The following phenological development has been reported in Nevada :
Mean dates breaking dormancy Mean days of active development March 31 72 April 2 74 April 7 74Indian ricegrass can produce green shoots in fall and generally stays dry until late winter or early spring when new growth begins. Lower portions of the stem may remain somewhat green during most of the winter . Panicles of different maturities may be present on a particular plant at any given time during the growing season .
Indian ricegrass reestablishes on burned sites through seed dispersed from adjacent unburned areas. Fire intervals in sagebrush-grass communities have been estimated at 7 to 70 years . The range of fire intervals reported for some species that dominate communities in which Indian ricegrass occurs are listed below. To learn more about the fire regimes in those communities refer to the FEIS summary for that species, under "Fire Ecology or Adaptations."
ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa var. scopulorum): 2-42 years
Mexican pinyon: (P. cembroides) 20-70 years
Secondary colonizer - off-site seed
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".
Indian ricegrass has not been the subject of intensive research. Pechanec and others  report that it is slightly damaged by fire. However, in Utah, Ralphs and others  note that is "moderately damaged" by fire. According to West , plants are generally killed by fire.
Indian ricegrass regenerates from seed following fire . In western and central Utah, Indian ricegrass may represent important cover on burned areas and often exhibits good growth characteristics. Low culm density reduces charring of crowns below soil, thereby protecting growing points. Spring burning in Utah did little damage to Indian ricegrass, and growth began within 3 weeks after burning . In Nevada, summer wildfires reduced the basal area of Indian ricegrass, but little mortality was observed . Rapid postfire responses such as these suggest that Indian ricegrass may also sprout from tillers.
Postburn cover of Indian ricegrass may be more a function of preburn conditions rather than length of time since disturbance 
In singleleaf pinyon (Pinus monophylla)-Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) communities of the Great Basin, Everett  reported that Indian ricegrass could increase in density soon after fire. Postfire recovery time of Indian ricegrass is listed as 2 to 4 years . However, West and Hassan  report that only a small portion of preburn cover had been gained one year after a July burn in Utah. Specific values are as follows :
1981(prefire) 1982 1983
mean kg/ha 50.03 14.59 48.96
After an annual early spring burn of grassland-shrublands in Canada, canopy cover and frequency of Indian ricegrass increased significantly (p<0.005) :
frequency (%) canopy cover (%)
unburned burned unburned burned
3 16 0.1 0.6
On burned pinyon-juniper (Colorado pinyon (Pinus edulis)-Utah juniper) sites in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, Indian ricegrass and other perennial grasses dominated the site by the fourth year after fire .
Annual burning may produce a more arid environment than usually found in fescue (Festuca spp.) prairie, favoring mixed-prairie grasses such as Indian ricegrass.
Some changes in postfire nutritional characteristics have been reported. Specific values are as follows :
Aboveground Root Total N SiO2 Total K Total Si02 K
biomass (g) biomass (g) (mg), (%) (mg), (%) (mg)
unburned 1.60 0.35 47 (2.0) 34 (1.7) 27
burned 1.27 0.26 39 (4.0) 49 (1.7) 22
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