Grasslands form in areas where wind-blown sediment and erosion have created a layer of soil that is several feet thick. Individual grasses sprout almost anywhere there is soil. Small grasslands form in potholes that have filled with dirt. Grasses found in Capitol Reef include bunch grasses and sod-forming grasses. Common bunch grasses in Capitol Reef include Indian ricegrass, needle-and-thread, and sand dropseed, while sod-forming grasses include blue grama grass and galleta grass.

Fine green grass stalks branching in all directions, each with a rounded seed capsule at its tip.
Indian ricegrass can be identified by its slender, widely branching stalks, each terminating in a single seed.


Indian Ricegrass

Scientific Name: Achnatherum hymenoides
Size (height): 8–30 in (20–76 cm)
Habitat: Grows at elevations between 3,000-10,000 ft (900-3,000 m) where annual precipitation is 6 in (15 cm) or more.
Range: Western US

Description: Indian ricegrass is a perennial bunchgrass that starts growing rapidly in early spring and flowers in late spring. It stabilizes sandy soils which are susceptible to wind erosion, and therefore has been used for revegetating disturbed areas in Capitol Reef. Its black seeds are rich in protein and are an important food source for birds and small mammals. The seeds were also consumed by Native Americans, like the Fremont Culture, who collected and ground the seeds into meal using grinding stones (manos) and bowl-shaped rocks (metates).

Green grass with fuzzy tan seeds clustered along the upper stems.
Galleta grass has a zig-zag pattern along the upper stems that have already dropped their seeds.


Galleta Grass

Scientific Name: Hilaria jamesii
Size (height): 11–19 in (30–50 cm) tall
Habitat: Grows at elevations between 3,500–7,500 feet (1,066–2286 m) where annual precipitation is 5–16 in (13–41 cm)
Range: southern Wyoming and northern Nevada to southern California, northern Mexico, and southwestern Kansas.

Description: Galleta is a perennial grass that flowers and produces seed in mid-summer, and is abundant in the park. It can withstand trampling by wildlife and is consumed by desert bighorn sheep. Its fuzzy flowers are clustered along the top 1–4 in (2.5–10 cm) of each stem. When its seeds ripen and fall, a distinctive zig-zap pattern is revealed along the upper stem.
Tall green grass with curly fibers at its tip.
Needle-and-thread grass can be identified by its long, twisting awns, each attached to a sharp-pointed seed.

NPS / Laura Thomas

Needle-and-Thread Grass

Scientific Name: Hesperostipa comata
Size (height): 1–4 ft (0.3–1.2 m)
Habitat: Grows at elevations between 4,000–7,500 ft (1,200–2,300 m) where annual precipitation is 10–18 in (25–46 cm).
Range: From British Columbia and the Yukon to Ontario, south to California, New Mexico and Texas

Description: Needle-and-thread grass is a perennial bunchgrass that starts growing in early spring. It is named for its sharp-pointed seed attached to a long twisted awn giving the appearance of a short needle and long thread. Once the seeds fall, the twisted awns unwind, driving the seeds into the soil like a corkscrew. Needle-and-thread grass is consumed by deer and elk in spring prior to awn development and again in fall after its seeds drop. If grazed by livestock or wildlife when seeds are ripe, the sharp seed may cause injury to the tongue, throat, eyes and ears. Needle-and-thread grass is very drought tolerant and is very effective in preventing wind erosion on sandy soils.


Sand Dropseed

Scientific Name: Sporobolus cryptandrus

Size (height): 11–40 in (28–102 cm)

Habitat: Grows at low elevation areas where annual precipitation is 5–15 in (13–38 cm).

Range: Found throughout North America

Description: Sand dropseed is a perennial bunchgrass that starts growing in spring. It produces many seeds which mature from June to August. The scientific name, Sporobolus, comes from the Greek words sporos and bolos which mean "seed" and "throw", referring to the seeds which fall or may be ejected when the fruit wall dries. This species produces a dense network of roots which can spread up to 2 ft (0.6 m) wide and over 8 ft (2.4 m) deep, making it extremely drought tolerant. This grass produces abundant seeds; a single inflorescence (cluster of flowers on one stem) is capable of producing 10,000 seeds!

Last updated: February 14, 2021

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