Graminoid forb growing in loose tussocks or dense to loose mats due to horizontal, branched rhizomes, with main branching outside leaf sheaths (extravaginal), typically with rhizome branches of (1)2−5(8) cm between aerial shoots. Aerial shoots ascending from rhizome, at base with several prophylls (reduced leaves without or with a short blade). Culms 20−40(55) cm, erect, very strongly ribbed, smooth throughout or very rarely sparsely scabrous or pubescent just below the panicle. Base of shoots with a few, pale straw-coloured, remaining sheaths from previous years, however, not forming a dense cylinder or sheaths.


Leaves filiform and convolute, U-shaped in cross section, or flat (flat leaves mostly associated with culms, filiform leaves with vegetative shoots), with discontinuous strings of sclerenchyma (strengthening tissue) and therefore with ca. 6 distinct ribs, glabrous. Basal leaves up to 15−25(30) cm long, shorter than culms, 0.7−1.0 mm broad when convolute, up to 5 mm broad when flat. Leaf sheaths closed for ca. 70 % of their length or more. Culm leaves filiform or flat, the uppermost (the 'flag leaf') blade often flat, 4−8(10) cm, attached near or below the middle of (well-grown) culms. Distinct auricles at the transition between sheath and blade. Ligula 1.0−2.0 mm, truncate, more or less fringed.


The units of the inflorescence of Poaceae are the spikelets, nearly always numerous in a panicle or spike-like inflorescence. Spikelets are composed of 2 glumes (bracts for the spikelet) and one or more flowers (the term used below) or rather floral units often named ‘florets’ because we do not know what is the exact flower. A flower or floret is composed of: a lemma with 1 mid vein (probably the floral bract), a palea with 2 mid veins (either 2 fused bracteoles or perhaps 2 fused perianth leaves), 3 small organs called ‘lodiculae’ being essential in the opening of the flower at anthesis (possibly transformed perianth leaves or transformed stamens), 3 stamens (mostly), and a gynoecium of 2 fused carpels with 2 feathery stigmas and one seed.

Inflorescence an elongate or pyramidal, open panicle, 6−15 cm long, less than 1/4 the length of (well-developed) culms. Panicle branches long (the lower up to 2−3 cm), mostly at 5−9 nodes, usually 1−2 at the lowest nodes, 1 at the upper nodes. Branches smooth or sparsely scabrous (correlated with degree of pubescence on lemmas), each branch with 4−8 spikelets. Spikelets 7−9 × 3−5 mm, with 4−7 flowers. Bracts (glumes and lemmas) with rounded backs. Glumes unequal, the lower 1.8−2.3 mm, the upper 2.5−3.5 mm and usually less than 1/2 as long as spikelet, lanceolate to narrowly lanceolate, with 1−3 more or less distinct veins, moderately shiny, glabrous or fringed with hairs, greyish violet or green with a narrow, yellow, hyaline margin, without awn. Lemmas 4−7 mm, lanceolate to narrowly lanceolate, with 3−5 indistinct veins, more or less dull, greyish violet or green with a narrow, yellow hyaline margin, glabrous to moderately pubescent with short, stiff hairs, not long pilose, without awn or with awn 0.5−3(4) mm. Paleas as long as lemmas, scabrous on the veins, otherwise smooth. Anthers well developed, 2.3−2.6 mm.


Fruit an achene (with one seed).


Sexual reproduction by seeds, at least potentially; efficient local vegetative reproduction by horizontal rhizomes. Wind pollinated. Seed production probably intermittent or rare; no herbarium specimens seen with shed fruits (even if many of the plants have been collected in August and September).

No special means of dispersal except that the fruits inside the florets may attach to animals.


The fescues of Svalbard belong to several groups, all within the major section Festuca. The Festuca rubra group (including F. rubra. ssp. richardsonii and F. rubra ssp. rubra) is characterized by both intravaginal and extravaginal branching, the latter resulting in rhizomatous mats, and by several prophylls (see definition above) at the base of the shoots, by leaf sheaths closed for most of their length, and by auricles at the transition between sheath and blade. All the other fescues have only intravaginal branching, resulting in dense tussocks without any runners, no or only a single prophyll, leaf sheaths open almost to base, and almost no auricles.

There have been numerous misidentifications of F. rubra in the Svalbard through times. There is no good reason for that, as long as it is ascertained that it is talk about a Festuca (rounded backs of glumes and lemmas, acute or awned lemmas, most or all leaves filiform). Even in plants without culms and spikelets, the extravaginal rhizomatous shoot system of F. rubra, with prophylls and absence of sheath cylinder around the bases of shoots, is very different from the tussock system of all the others. However, F. rubra is an extremely polymorphic species, even in Svalbard, and you may find some forms here and there that may be difficult to assign. Particularly confusing is the variation in growth form and in shape and pubescence of glumes and lemmas. Festuca rubra may grow as very loose mats or as quite dense tussocks, probably depending on both genetics and environmental conditions. The variation in shape and pubescence of the glumes and especially in the lemmas which vary from shiny glabrous to densely white pilose, needs further study. Several local populations deviate strongly from the standards of the two subspecies. We are not sure whether transitional forms between the subspecies really occur in Svalbard or if they are part of the polymorphy of ssp. richardsonii.

We have divided the material on two subspecies, however, their characterization is ambiguous. Subspecies richardsonii is usually recognized by its densely pilose lemmas (visible at a good distance with sufficient light) and its lack of awn; ssp. rubra is mostly awned, and even when its lemmas are hairy, they are not densely white pilose. Another difference is found in the panicle structure: ssp. richardsonii has very short branches (very rarely 1 cm) with 1−3 spikelets; ssp. rubra has quite long branches (mostly more than 2 cm) with 4−8 spikelets.


Festuca rubra ssp. rubra is one of the more frequent introduced plants in Svalbard and mainly confined to settlements, road verges, refuse tips, and meadow fragments by cabins. The plants confirmed as this subspecies are strictly ruderal, at present common in Longyearbyen (due to attempts to make the town 'green' and to re-vegetate the road verges by grass seed). Elsewhere it has been found in numerous mining settlements and by cabins, but probably not persisting.

There are, however, plants native to Svalbard that may belong within this subspecies. Some populations in bird-cliffs along the west coast of Spitsbergen have glabrous lemmas and distinct awns. They do not conform to the obviously native ssp. richardsonii. These plants have not been well studied.


Introduced. Festuca rubra ssp. rubra is known from the area around the radio station on Bjørnøya, from the four main settlements on Spitsbergen (Longyearbyen, Ny-Ålesund, Barentsburg, Pyramiden), and from numerous previous mining settlements and cabins (e.g., Ny-London on Blomstrandøya in Kongsfjorden, Russetårnet in Colesbukta, Moskushamn, Advent City and Hotellneset in Adventfjorden, Fredheim in Sassen, Calypsobyen in Recherchefjorden). Almost all records from outlying cabins are old; in recent years the plant has been found only in Longyearbyen, Pyramiden and Barentsburg.

Outside Svalbard, this is one of the most widely distributed grasses of the northern hemisphere.


Festuca rubra or the F. rubra group (depending on whether you are a 'lumper' or a 'splitter') is one of the taxonomically and morphologically most complicated of all northern grasses (with Poa pratensis s. lat. as a close competitor). Markgraf-Dannenberg (1980; Flora Europaea) accepted ca. 14 species for Europe in a F. rubra group, and within F. rubra s. str. seven subspecies. Soreng et al. (2003) accepted at least eleven subspecies of F. rubra for North America, whereas Darbyshire & Pavlick (2007; Flora of North America) accepted ten subspecies for the same region.

The material collected in Svalbard is rather polymorphic. The majority of the plants of earlier collections have more or less flat leaves and not very large panicles. They seem to have been introduced with fodder and were found in settlements and by cabins alike. The more recently collected plants are mostly of a much coarser type with filiform leaves and large panicles very rich in spikelets. They are usually associated with attempts to re-vegetate road verges etc. in settlements (e.g., Longyearbyen) and may belong to one or more races. For the time being, we include all in ssp. rubra.


Darbyshire, S.J. & Pavlick, L.E. 2007. Festuca L. – In: Flora of North America Editorial Committee (eds.), Flora of North America north of Mexico. 24. Magnoliophyta: Commelinidae (in part): Poaceae, part 1: 389–443.

Markgraf-Dannenberg, I. 1980. Festuca L. – In: Tutin, T.G. et al. (eds.), Flora Europaea. 5. Alismataceae to Orchidaceae (Monocotyledones): 125–153.

Soreng, R.J., Peterson, P.M., Davidse, G., Judziewicz, E.J., Zuloaga, F.O., Filgueiras, T.S. & Morrone, O. 2003. Catalogue of New World grasses (Poaceae): IV. Subfamily Pooideae. – Contributions of the U.S. National Herbarium 48. 730 pp.

PHOTOS Festuca rubra ssp. rubra

Festuca brachyphylla 1 full
Festuca brachyphylla close full
Festuca brachyphylla whole full
IMG 8295
IMG 8301
IMG 8305
IMG 8339
IMG 8346

Observations in svalbard

__Herbarium specimen __Observation