What are the fine fescues?

By Ross Braun and Aaron Patton, Purdue University

The term “Fescue” is one that you may often hear during golf TV broadcasts or in dialogue with a person about planting, maintaining, controlling, etc. some kind of grass. However, just using the term “fescue” really doesn’t tell you much about this grass because there are many different kinds of fescues.

Festuca is a Latin word meaning stem or stalk and it is the genus (first word in scientific name) for fescue grass species. Hence, Festuca grasses are named fescue. However, recently tall fescue [Schedonorus arundinaceus (Schreb.) Dumort.; synonym = Lolium arundinaceum (Schreb.) S.J. Darbyshire; synonym = Festuca arundinacea Schreb.] and meadow fescue [Schedonorus pratensis (Huds.) P. Beauv. (formerly Festuca pratensis Huds.)] were reclassified by scientists into the genus Schedonorus, although they still retain their same common name of fescue. The wider or broad-leaved tall fescue and meadow fescue are similar, with meadow fescue being used sparingly for overseeding in warm-season turf or as a forage grass, and tall fescue commonly being used in lawns, roadsides and pastures (Figure 1).

a person's hand touching a lawn consisting of tall fescue turfgrass
Figure 1. Tall fescue (turf-type).

Other fescues also often used in turfgrass systems (home lawns, commercial properties, golf courses, parks, roadsides, low-input sites, and other utility turf) include strong creeping red fescue (Festuca rubra L. ssp. rubra Gaudin), slender creeping red fescue [Festuca rubra L. ssp. littoralis (G. Mey.) Auquier], Chewings fescue [Festuca rubra L. ssp. commutata Gaudin; synonym = Festuca rubra L. ssp. fallax (Thuill.) Nyman] (see footnote on the common name of Chewings fescue in Table 1), sheep fescue [Festuca ovina L.; synonym = Festuca ovina L. ssp. hirtula (Hack. ex Travis) M.J. Wilk.], and hard fescue (Festuca brevipila Tracey) (Table 1). These five fescues are often grouped together and called “fine fescues” because of their similar appearance of narrow (fine or bristle) leaves, which means they are difficult to distinguish from one another (Figures 2, 3, and 4). There are many other fescues besides these, but they are not commonly used in turf systems. An example is blue fescue (Festuca glauca Villars, non Lamarck.), which is more commonly found as an ornamental grass.

Table 1.  Recommended taxonomic classification for the five fine fescues used in turfgrass systems.

There is a lot of confusion and debate regarding the scientific (taxonomic) classification of fine fescues (Table 1). Recently, the team of researchers working on this grant "Increasing Low-Input Turfgrass Adoption Through Breeding, Innovation, and Public Education", from the USDA-NIFA through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative has put together an exhaustive scientific review of the fine fescue turf species that clearly documents differences in growth, production, establishment, management, utilization, pest tolerance, and stress tolerance of fine fescues (Braun et al., 2020). In the review by Braun et al. (2020), the recommended taxonomic classification is presented (Table 1) to bring greater clarity and accuracy to the use of scientific names for these grasses in the future.

a person's hand touching a lawn consisting of fine-textured turfgrass
Figure 2. Chewings fescue. Notice the fine leaf texture (narrow leaf width) compared to tall fescue above.
a strip of unmown fine fescue grass that is yellow and taller than the mown green lawn surrounding it
Figure 3. Unmown, fine-fescue used on a golf course. These areas are often described as no-mow, native areas, or environmentally sensitive areas to the golfers.
a median of green lawn between a sidewalk and road on a college campus
Figure 4. A mixture of 25% strong creeping red fescue, 25% slender creeping red fescue, 25% Chewings fescue, and 25% hard fescue on a shaded demonstration site on the campus of Purdue University being mowed at 3 inches.
Until now, we have still frequently referred to these five turfgrasses as a single group which leads homeowners and turf practitioners to infer that the individual species perform similarly, which is not the case. Our team recommends that users and researchers of these grasses begin to refer to each fine fescue individually, by their specific common or scientific name here forward. Our team will author new educational materials that describe the strengths and weaknesses of each: strong creeping red fescue, slender creeping red fescue, Chewings fescue, sheep fescue and hard fescue. With the new information attained from this research on the performance of these grasses and an understanding of their management, practitioners can capitalize on the strengths of individual fine fescue taxa (taxa, plural of taxon, which is a group of one or more populations of an organism or organisms used in the science of biological classification, or taxonomy) resulting in increased adoption and benefits from low-input turf.


This project was supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Specialty Crops Research Initiative under award number 2017-51181-27222.


Braun, R.C., A.J. Patton, E. Watkins, P. Koch, N.P. Anderson, S.A. Bonos, and L.A. Brilman. 2020. Fine fescues: A review of the species, their improvement, production, establishment, and management. Crop Science, in press. doi:10.1002/csc2.20122

Morgan, A. 1998. The Chewings story. TurfNews 22(6):33-35.

Ruemmele, B.A., J.K. Wipff, L. Brilman and K.W. Hignight. 2003. Fine-leaved fescue species. In: M.D. Casler and R.R. Duncan, editors, Turfgrass biology, genetics, and breeding. Wiley, New York. p. 129-174.

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