Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Fescue (Festuca pratensis Huds.)



This tall, coarse grass has short creeping rootstocks and grows in heavy clumps with erect stems 2-5 feet (0.6-1.5 meters) tall. It often forms dense solid stands. Leaves are 4-5 inches (10.1-12.7 cm) long, smooth on the undersurface and usually rough above. The erect panicles are usually 2-10 inches (5-25 cm) long and often nodding at top. The panicles are somewhat narrow and contracted to slightly spreading. Flowers occur in flat, oval spikelets that are 0.3-0.5 inches (8-12 mm) long. Usually, 6-12 individual flowers occur in each spikelet. Grasses, in general, are fairly difficult to identify, and fescue should be accurately identified before attempting any control measures. If identification of the species is in doubt, the plant's identity should be confirmed by a knowledgeable individual and/or by consulting appropriate books.

Fescue has been spread widely by cultivation throughout most of the U.S. and southern Canada. It now occurs throughout Illinois, but is particularly common in southern counties where there is much pasture land.

This grass occurs in a variety of disturbed habitats including pastures, abandoned fields, roadsides, grazed woods, and along railroad tracks. It can tolerate a wide range of moisture conditions and is common along some levees where it is often planted, and stream banks. Where it occurs in natural communities, it has often been spread by horses and cattle through manure.

Life History
This hardy perennial was introduced from Europe and is commonly sown for pasture and hay. It does well on poor acid soils and often is found where there is little competition from other species. Fescue grows best in open sunlight and spreads primarily by seed to form dense solid stands. The heavy clumps have thick mats of roots that make it almost impossible to pull the plant out of the ground. Fescue emerges early in spring and often forms new growth in fall after the seed matures in July and August. In southern Illinois, the leaves usually stay green all winter. This grass is slow to become established, but once the heavy clumps are formed, it is difficult to eradicate. As the density of fescue increases at a site, species diversity decreases, partly due to allelopathic substances. It can withstand trampling and heavy grazing by livestock.

Effects Upon Natural Areas
Fescue occasionally invades open natural communities, such as prairies and glades. In a few places, it is changing the species composition and possibly is crowding out native species. This alien species has the potential to become a significant problem because of its adaptability to poor sites, allelopathic character, and difficulty of eradication.






Initial effort in areas of heavy infestation
Dense stands should be burned in late spring. It may be necessary to burn 2 or 3 years in succession to get old fescue stands under control. If repeated late spring burning does not control fescue adequately, it should be sprayed with a 1-2% Roundup (a formulation of glyphosphate) solution in early spring or late autumn when fescue is green but native species are still dormant. Application should be done with a hand-held sprayer or wick/wiper applicator. Extreme care should be used while spraying to avoid contacting nontarget plants with the spray, because Roundup is a nonselective herbicide. Do not spray so heavily that herbicide drips off the target species. Roundup should be applied while backing away from the treated area to avoid walking through the wet herbicide. By law, herbicides may only be applied as per label directions and by licensed herbicide applicators or operators when working on public properties.

Effort in areas of light infestation
Late spring prescribed burning should help eliminate young plants. Repeated burning for 2-4 years may be needed to achieve good control. Spot applications of 1-2% Roundup applied with a hand-held sprayer or wick applicator in early spring or late fall may help if prescribed burning is insufficient. Spot applications of Fusilade 2000 (according to label instructions) may be effective following a burn. Fusilade 2000 selectively kills grasses and does not kill broadleaf plants. Do not spray so heavily that herbicide drips off the target species. A few isolated clumps may be dug up by hand.

Maintenance control
Surrounding seed sources must be eliminated where possible to prevent seed from continually moving into the natural area. Livestock should be kept out of the area, because seeds are spread in manure. Seedlings and young plants that invade should be eliminated by hand digging or spot applications of either 1-2% Roundup or Fusilade 2000, according to label instructions the first year.

Initial effort in areas of heavy infestation
The site should be burned in late spring and can then be sprayed with 1-2% Roundup the following autumn. It may be necessary to burn and spray 2 or 3 years in succession.

Effort in areas of light infestation
Late spring prescribed burning helps eliminate young plants and is a preferred treatment. A few isolated clumps may be dug up by hand. Spot applications of 1-2% Roundup in early spring or late fall are effective. Spot applications of Fusilade 2000 may work best following a burn.

Maintenance control
Same control practices recommended as for high quality natural communities.







  • Pulling by hand is almost impossible because of tough root system. Digging up clumps is slow and sometimes undesirable in a high-quality natural area.
  • Mowing does not reduce existing populations and may encourage spreading by root stocks.
  • Fire usually is ineffective when fescue is dormant.
  • Most herbicides are ineffective if applied while fescue is dormant or after mowing.
  • Tillage usually is not an effective way to control any species in a natural area, but may be used in severely disturbed buffer areas.
  • Grazing is ineffective since it usually eliminates other species first and encourages spread of fescue.
  • Manipulating water levels usually is not practical on natural areas where fescue occurs.
  • No biological controls are known that are feasible in natural areas.







Dr. Robert M. Mohlenbrock and the Southern Illinois University Press generously permitted use of illustrations from their Illustrated Flora of Illinois.






Fernald, M. L. 1950. Gray's manual of botany, eighth edition. American Book Co., New York. 1632 pp. Gleason, H. A. 1952. The new Britton and Brown illustrated flora of the northeastern United States and adjacent Canada. Vol. 1. The New York Botanical Garden, New York. 590 pp.

Mohlenbrock, R. H., and J. W. Voigt. 1959. A flora of southern Illinois. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale. 390 pp.

Schwegman, J. E. 1988. Exotic invaders. Outdoor Highlights, vol. 16, no. 6, pp 6-11.






Abrell, Brian. 1988. Division of Nature Preserves, Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Bender, J. 1988. Kentucky Nature Preserves Commission, Frankfort, Kentucky.

Crews, W. 1988. Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Marion, Illinois.

Kurz, Don. 1988. Natural History Section, Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City, Missouri.

McFall, Don. 1988. Division of Natural Heritage, Illinois Department of Conservation, Springfield, Illinois.

Nyboer, Randy. 1988. Division of Natural Heritage, Illinois Department of Conservation, Springfield, Illinois.

Olson, Steve. 1988. Division of Nature Preserves, Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Tell City, Indiana.

Packard, Steve. 1989. The Nature Conservancy, Chicago, Illinois.

Schwegman, John. 1988. Division of Natural Heritage, Illinois Department of Conservation, Springfield, Illinois.

Stritch, Larry. 1988. Shawnee National Forest, United States Forest Service, Harrisburg, Illinois.


Written for the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission by:
Max Hutchison 
Natural Land Institute
R.R. 1
Belknap, Illinois 62908

Illinois Natural History Survey

1816 South Oak Street, MC 652
Champaign, IL 61820

Terms of use. Email the Web Administrator with questions or comments.

© 2020 University of Illinois Board of Trustees. All rights reserved.
For permissions information, contact the Illinois Natural History Survey.

Staff Intranet