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Needle-and-Thread Grass (Stipa comata)

Plant Species
From Montana Interagency Plant Materials Handbook *
 By
S. Smoliak, R.L. Ditterline, J.D. Scheetz, L.K. Holzworth, J.R. Sims, L.E. Wiesner, D.E. Baldridge, and G.L. Tibke

Needle-and-thread is a deep-rooted, long-lived, native bunchgrass that occurs generally on the western ranges, and most abundantly on the sandy soils of the Northern Great Plains. It grows in almost pure stands as an invader on some of the abandoned croplands of the Plains. It is usually associated with western wheatgrass, blue grama and threadleaf sedge.

Description

Needle-and-thread derives its name from the appearance of the seed, which is slender, sharp-pointed and has a long, bent, twisted, thread-like awn. The narrow leaves reach lengths of 8 to 12 inches, becoming inrolled as they mature. The individual bunches vary from 1 to 3 inches in diameter. The plant is made up of predominantly basal leaves with culm heights of 1 to 4 feet. Needle-and-thread has a characteristic long, membranous, notched and frayed ligule. The seed head is a rather narrow panicle 4 to 8 inches long, with the lower portion often retained in the sheath. The specific name "comata" comes from the Latin "coma" meaning head of hair, which refers to the appearance of tangled head of mature awns.

Adaptation

Needle-and-thread is a native grass, widely distributed over the western states and the Great Plains, and also occurs in the upper valley of the Yukon. It is common on dry, sandy or gravelly plains, mesas and foothills, and sometimes extends into the mountains up to elevations between 4,000 and 8,500 feet. It commonly occurs in the sagebrush, juniper-pinyon and ponderosa pine types of the Rocky Mountains, and on semidesert plains and foothills of the southwest. Needle-and-thread requires well-drained sites, and will not tolerate extremes in acidity or alkalinity.

Limitations

The sharp seeds with attached awns will work into the wool and skin of sheep, and around the mouth and eyes. Cattle are bothered some with sore eyes and mouth, but not as much as sheep. The long awns also make it difficult to harvest and handle seed.

Use for Hay

It is cut for hay in parts of eastern Wyoming, the Dakotas and Nebraska, where it rates as very good forage. The native hay harvests usually include other species like western wheatgrass and bluebunch wheatgrass. Harvesting should be done prior to seed set to avoid the sharp seeds and awns. Native hay used as a mulch is one of the best ways to seed needle-and-thread, if harvested when seed is at the firm, dough stage.

Use for Pasture

The forage value of needle-and-thread varies in different regions, at different seasons and with varied ecotypes. It is rated as good forage early in the season until the seeds form. The plants are readily eaten again, once the seeds have shattered. This grass is valuable because of its ability to green up and produce new growth in summer and fall with the advent of sufficient precipitation. The forage cures well, providing nutritious winter grazing. When in a mixture, it is usually not the preferred species. Because it is an increaser, its abundance is difficult to reduce by grazing management.

Seed Production

The long awns and sharp, pointed seeds of needle-and-thread make seed harvest or collection difficult. Debearding is necessary to produce a usable seed, but must be done with care to insure as little damage as possible to the seed. When the seed is planted by mulching with native hay, the awn becomes a useful appendage. With changes in temperature and moisture, the twisted awn untwists, often times working the seed into the ground where it has a much better chance of germinating and establishing.

Native harvests are usually done by stripping and running the product through a hammermill or debearder to remove or reduce the awns. Very little seed is available on the commercial market because of the harvest and handling problems. Harvesting and processing techniques must be developed if this species will see much use as a conservation plant.

* The Montana Interagency Plant Materials Handbook (EB69) is no longer in print, but is available for viewing in
Montana County Extension Service and National Resource Conservation Service Offices.