Rocky Mountain/Alpine Fescue

Percy Folkard, BC FLNR
Scientific name: 

Festuca saximontana Rydb./ Festuca brachyphylla Schultes

Native Grass
Annual precip. min (mm): 
Annual precip. max (mm): 
Seed size: 
Seeds per kg: 
PR Suitability note: 
Rocky mountain fescue is found in native plant communities in the Peace Region.
Key considerations: 
Rocky mountain fescue is suitable for site rehabilitation where there is native plant community objective. Can be important forage for wildlife, but overall production is low because of its low growing nature.
General Description: 

Rocky Mountain fescue is a densely tufted, low-growing, perennial bunchgrass with dense fibrous roots. Alpine fescue is very similar in growth habit but slightly shorter in stature. Both are cool season native grasses. There has been some variety development research in the last 10 years by Alberta Research Council researchers in Vegreville, Alberta.

The stems grow 10 to 60 cm (4 to 24 in.) tall. The leaves of Rocky Mountain fescue are very fine, yellowish-green to rarely purple, while the Alpine fescue leaves are commonly purple. Both have leaves that are about 0.5 to 1.0 mm wide, thread-like, and roll inwards.

The seed heads form 2- to 5-flowered spikelets in Rocky Mountain fescue compared to 3- to 4-flowered spikelets in Alpine fescue. Both have short awns on the seed. In native stands, flowering and seed maturity is highly variable. In cultivated stands, seeds shatter easily when mature. Alpine fescue has slightly smaller seeds (up to 2 mm difference in length). Flowering and seed maturity vary depending on altitude and latitude. In the northern prairies and boreal regions, seed matures in mid-June; in alpine regions, seed matures by early to late August. The seed shatters easily and provides plant recruitment for the revegetation of sites.

Circumpolar distribution. In North America, from Alaska and Yukon through southern British Columbia to California.
Habitat and climate: 
Rocky Mountain fescue grows in grasslands, dry hillsides, open woodlands, sandy soils in moister areas, and exposed sites up to the tree line. It is a component in late successional grasslands in the southern Interior. Alpine fescue grows mainly in arctic and alpine areas (alpine and higher elevation BEC zones).
Used in reclamation mixes as a pioneer species in harsh environments. Also used for erosions control and for restoring Rocky Mountain sheep habitat. Also appropriate for grassland restoration.
Optimal time of grazing use: 
Early spring and early summer, but also late fall.
Recovery after use (rating): 
Recovery after use: 
Where Rocky mountain fescue is a co-dominant in late successional grasslands, in the Interior Douglas-fir zone it decreases with overgrazing. At higher elevations, Rocky Mountain and Alpine fescue can remain in mid-successional grazed alpine plant communities.
Forage yield (rating): 
Forage yield: 
Less palatable than Idaho fescue and low forage production but important forage for wildlife. Stays green until late fall. Has also been reported to be fairly good forage for livestock.
Palatability/Nutritional Value: 
Palatability is low but an important source of food for Rocky Mountain sheep and for elk in spring and summer.
Longevity (rating): 
Rocky Mountain fescue is long lived.
Persistence (rating): 
Competitiveness (rating): 
These are non-competitive species considered compatible with other native species.
Erosion control (rating): 
Erosion control: 
The fibrous roots of these grasses and their adaptation to sandy, gravelly, infertile soils make them useful for erosion control and rehabilitation of disturbed sites.
Drought tolerance (rating): 
Drought tolerance: 
Both are drought tolerant and are noticeably absent from wetter areas.
Soil texture preference (rating): 
Soil texture preference: 
Prefers well drained sandy to loam soils.
Flooding tolerance (rating): 
Flooding tolerance: 
Not common in areas where water pools.
Salinity tolerance (rating): 
Salinity tolerance: 
Acidity tolerance (rating): 
Shade tolerance: 
Alpine fescue is shade tolerant.
Ease of establishment (rating): 
Ease of establishment: 
Germinates better in cooler soils.
Application requirements: 
Clear site of all weeds, as these species are not overly competitive. Use narrow spacing if drill seeding. Seed early in spring. Suggested seeding depth is 0.6 to 1.2 cm (1/4 to 1/2 in.).
Suggested mixtures: 
Best blended with junegrass, alpine bluegrass, or other native species.