Cenchrus ciliaris

Family : Poaceae
Common names : foxtail buffalo grass (Eng.); bloubuffelgras (Afr.)

Cenchrus ciliaris is a perennial, tufted grass. The inflorescence is a bristly 'spike' (like a cat's tail) and is nearly always purple to straw-coloured.

A tufted perennial grass, 60100 cm high. Leaf blades 100250 x 48 mm. Inflorescence (Gibbs Russell et al. 1990): a bristly false spike, 40120 mm long, straw- or purple-coloured; all bristles are joined at base below spikelet cluster to form a small inconspicuous disc, bristles mostly 510 mm long, outer bristles slender and scabrid, inner bristles slender and plumose. Spikelet 45 x 3 mm; lower glume (the bracts at the base of the spikelet) 1-nerved or nerveless and upper glume 13-nerved, minutely awned; lower lemma usually 5-nerved, minutely awned; upper lemma similar to lower lemma (encloses grass flower), slightly thicker in texture; anther 1.52.7 mm long. A variable species, with many cultivars available e.g. Malopo. Flowering: August to April.

Cenchrus ciliaris inflorescence Cenchrus ciliaris illustrated diagram - click for enlarged view

Conservation status
The SANBI Threatened Plants Programme has not yet indicated its conservation status, but as it is a drought-resistant perennial, which, during drought plays an important role as a pasture to livestock, it is valued and conservation is practiced indirectly.

Distribution and habitat
It occurs in the more arid parts of southern Africa and tropical Africa, the Mediterranean areas, and in Arabia to India. Introduced to Australia and other hot, drier areas of the world where it has been imported as cultivated pasture. Foxtail buffalo grass grows in dry, warm parts. It grows in all types of soil, but mostly in sandy soil and other well-drained soil types. It is often found along roadsides where it utilizes the additional runoff rainwater.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
Cenchrus is derived from a Greek word kegchros which means a kind of millet. The species epithet ciliaris is a Latin word which means like an eyelash, or short hairs, possibly alluding to the hairy bristles surrounding the spikelets. The genus Cenchrus has 22 species, tropical and warm temperate; 1 species indigenous and 3 species naturalised in southern Africa; C. ciliaris is the only a widespread species.

Common in hot dry areas, especially on sandy soils where it is often ruderal (grows in waste places), and also often on termitaria, on all types of soil. Cenchrus ciliaris ia pollinated by wind. It is adapted to fairly heavy grazing and a wide variety of conditions.

Uses and cultural aspects
Cenchrus ciliaris is a palatable species with a high leaf production. Generally planted as pasture (Farming in South Africa leaflet 114. 1983. A cultivation guide). It is one of the most popular cultivated pastures, especially in the more arid parts, with many commercially available cultivars. Foxtail buffalo grass can endure trampling.

Cenchrus ciliaris growing along roadside

Growing Cenchrus ciliaris

It is easy to grow Cenchrus ciliaris, especially in lower rainfall areas on sandy soils. It is easily established by seeding. It is a hardy cultivated pasture with a deep root system (up to 2 m). Foxtail buffalo grass is difficult to establish in clay soil, but once established, it grows well. In the garden it is best used as a lawn grass, this is common in India.

References and further reading

  • Chippindall, L.K.A. & Crook, A.O. 1976. Grasses of southern Africa. Collins, Harare [Salisbury].
  • Gibbs Russell, G.E., Watson, L., Koekemoer, M., Smook, L., Barker, N.P., Anderson, H.M. & Dallwitz, M.J. 1990. Grasses of southern Africa. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 58.
  • Leistner, O.A. (ed.). 2000. Seeds plants of southern Africa : families and genera. Strelitzia 10. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
  • Van Oudtshoorn, F. 1999. Guide to the grasses of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.


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