Discovering foxtail barley

Foxtail barley perfect for those tough-to-plant spots

A hardy plant for those tough-to-plant spots, swaths of foxtail barley swish from silver to pink in the breeze

Summer trips around the province expose us to spectacular roadside wildflower displays. Many of these colourful characters such as the sky-blue chicory (Cichorium intybus), and sweet-smelling sweet clovers (Melilotus alba and M. officinalis) are invasive weeds. Native species provide colourful displays along roadsides, among them the foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum).

The common name foxtail barley evokes a realistic image of this attractive grass, an individual plant looking like a silvery pink tail. When seen in large masses as is the usual habit of the species, the colonies appear like undulating swaths swished from silvery to pink hues as the wind blows through them.

Getting to know foxtail barley

This perennial species consists of a fibrous root mass from which grow numerous short leaves. Hollow stems rise from this tuft of leaves to heights ranging from 20 to 60 cm (8 to 24 in.). Stems can be smooth or densely covered in soft hairs. Long narrow leaves arch at wide intervals from the stem. The leaf consists of a sheath attached at the base to a swollen node. The sheath wraps around the stem to a point at which the blade diverts sharply from the stem.

The top of the stem bears the flowerhead which has the form of a spike and is almost as wide as it is long because of the projections called awns at the tips of all the flower parts. There are many individual flowers called florets in the spike and these are arranged into spikelets. The awns and spikelets are at first soft but turn hard and spiky as the seeds mature.

More on decorative grass

A hardy plant

Foxtail barley is extremely hardy and grows at low to mid elevations throughout British Columbia. It is recognized as a botanically “cosmopolitan” species because it also occurs in most of North America, South America, Europe and Asia. Typical natural habitats include lake shores, alkali flats and sea-shore meadows. The most striking natural displays in B.C. are visible in late spring or early summer growing in shallow salty or alkaline depressions in the southern interior. Foxtail barley also thrives in disturbed places in the city. I have seen large attractive patches lining the roads of northern B.C. and southern Yukon.

Decorative grass

Foxtail barley is a plant for the rough places on a property, not manicured flower-beds. The shallow ditch in front of your home makes an excellent spot as does any gravelly or eroding place with poor soils. Its tolerance to salt and alkaline conditions suit it for tough shoreline environments or strongly limey soils whether wet or dry. Grow the species from seeds sown at the desired site. Divisions of the root crown or masses of dug-up roots also work. Once established this grass will continue seeding itself from year to year. You may want to mow it after the silvery salmon floral display ends and flowerheads begin to dry. This keeps the patch looking neat and may limit the dispersal of spiky seeds that sometimes get hooked into clothing and animal fur.

In Canada’s inland boreal regions, young shoots of foxtail barley were sometimes eaten by First Peoples. Apparently during the depression of the 1930s the seedheads were used as mattress stuffing. Hard mature seeds were mixed with meat to kill stray dogs that might interfere with the caribou hunt.

Though it may be considered weedy and troublesome by some, foxtail barley can produce breathtaking displays on poor soils in the late spring to midsummer. It’s a worthy subject for difficult terrain.

An expert on native plants, Richard Hebda is curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.