Themeda triandra


Poaceae (grass family)
Common names:
red grass (Eng.); rooigras (Afr.)

Rooigras grasslands

This is a lovely green to blue-green, tufted grass that is often flushed with pink and turns red with age. Some forms have bright yellow culms (stems). The spikelets (grass flowers) form wedge-shaped, usually hanging clusters that may or may not be hairy with long, black or white hairs. It is a well-known grazing grass, forming, where dominant, the red grass or rooigrasveld (grasslands) in parts of South Africa.

SpikeletsThis is a tufted perennial grass that is very variable in appearance and size, ranging from 0.3-1.5 m in height. Plants from higher altitudes tend to be shorter and dark purple, whereas, at lower altitudes, plants are often lighter coloured and flushed only with purple. The basal parts of the tuft are usually compressed. The wedged-shaped, often pendant clusters of spikelets are surrounded by leaf-like spathes or bracts that are brown or reddish brown and are often flushed with mauve, purple or red. The spikelets are also awned, that is, have long stiff bristle-like projections. Flowering time is from October to July.

This grass is widespread in South Africa, growing in undisturbed grasslands to savanna, in areas of average to high rainfall. Although the grass grows in any type of soil, it prefers clay and soils with high organic content.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
The meaning of the genus name Themeda is obscure, but it is Arabic and appears to have something to do with water or possibly the lack thereof. The species name tri (three) and andr (man) is Greek, referring to the three male spikelets surrounding the bisexual spikelet in each cluster.

World-wide, there are 18 species of Themeda occurring in the tropics and subtropics of the Old World, mainly in Asia. T. triandra is the only species occurring in Africa but is also found in Asia and Australasia.

Red grass is an indicator of veld being in a good condition. It is also known to be resistant to fire, the resistance increasing when burnt regularly, but only if rested after fire and if overgrazing does not occur. The long awns of the spikelet twirl when wet, and drive the seed into the ground.

Uses and cultural aspects
This is a very important and well-known grazing grass that is palatable especially when young. In some parts of Africa it is used for thatching but the forms found in southern Africa tend to be flimsy and not durable enough. In Lesotho and bordering areas it is used sometimes for thatching and some basketry. Paper pulp can also be made from the culms (stems). In Australia it has been used as an ornamental and landscape plant.

Attractive growth form

Growing Themeda triandra

In South Africa, grasses in general and indigenous grasses in particular, have seldom been used in gardens. The 'plant indigenous' drive and the trend to 'wild gardens' in garden design has changed this. To date, not much is known about the cultivation of our indigenous grasses in gardens and only some nurseries have started selling them. However, this is changing as more and more people are becoming aware of the beauty of grasses and their usefulness in attracting animals, especially birds to their gardens. The tall red grass forms can be used as medium height accent plants or planted in small clumps in a 'wild garden' feature.

An established plant can be obtained from a nursery, or depending on the rains in November or December, whole culms with inflorescences can be cut and laid on the ground. The awns (bristles) must be present in the inflorescences while the rest of the stems will act as a mulch, which is important for germination of the seed. After the rains in February and March, seeds can be planted but these will only germinate the following spring. Although clay soils with a high organic content are preferred, if Themeda is occurring naturally in your area, you could try to grow it. Once established, little maintenance is needed except cutting back in winter to about one third of it size and removing most of the old dead leaves.

References and further reading

  • Chippindall, L.K.A. & Crook, A.O. 1976. Grasses of southern Africa. Collins, Harare (Salisbury).
  • Leistner, O.A. 2000. Seed plants of southern Africa: families and genera. Strelitzia 10. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
  • Moffett, R. 1997. Grasses of the eastern Free State. UNIQWA, Phuthaditjhaba.
  • Van Oudtshoorn, F. 1999. Guide to the grasses of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
  • Zacharias, P.J.K. 1990. Acocks' Notes: key grasses of South Africa. The Natal Witness, Pietermaritzburg.

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This page forms part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute's plant information website