What is Red Fescue?

M. Haskins

Red fescue, named Festuca rubra in Latin, is a perennial species of grass that can be found in many different habitats around the world, mainly in northern and temperate areas. It belongs to the Poaceae family of plants, also called the true grasses, and is widely cultivated for use as turf grass and forage. It is valued for its ability to thrive in a wide variety of growing conditions. This grass has very fine, narrow blades that are deep green in color and in its natural state it can grow 20-30 inches (60-80 cm) tall. The panicles, meaning the feathery parts of the plant holding its flowers and seeds, vary in color from reddish green to purplish green.

Red fescue can be cultivated into hay for livestock.
Red fescue can be cultivated into hay for livestock.

As wild red fescue grows in clumps rather than forming turf, various cultivars of the original species are usually used as lawn grass. These lower-growing, turf-forming varieties are often called creeping red fescue, and are either sown by themselves or mixed with other species of grass, like Kentucky bluegrass or ryegrass. When grown as turf, red fescue should be mowed to a height of about 3-4 inches (about 7.5-10 cm). It is suited to moderate wear and does not need frequent watering.

Red fescue can be used in pastures for grazing.
Red fescue can be used in pastures for grazing.

Red fescue can also be left unmowed as a low-maintenance groundcover, for example along roads and in fields. The creeping varieties can grow 8-12 inches (20-30 cm) tall in this state. Another use for red fescue is as forage grass. In the wild, it is an important source of food for many grazing animals, and when cultivated to feed livestock it can be grown for grazing in pastures or for use as hay and silage. It is especially prized by farmers in areas with cold, snowy winters, because it retains its nutritional value even in freezing temperatures.

The preferred growing conditions for red fescue include some shade, cool temperatures and low to moderate moisture, but it is a hardy plant, able to thrive in many different types of soil and climate. It is very frost resistant, and can survive extended periods of temperatures as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit (-34 C). Red fescue also tolerates dry and shady growing conditions, as well as poor soil, better than many other species of grass. For this reason it is often planted where it will not be watered or fertilized on a regular basis. It is not very heat tolerant, and unless it has at least some shade it will have difficulty surviving in hot areas.

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