Festuca arundinacea

Festuca arundinacea is a species of fescue known by the common name tall fescue. It is a cool season perennial C3 grass species native to Europe. It is an important grass forage throughout Europe, and many cultivars have been used in agriculture. The predominant cultivar found in British pastures is S170, an endophyte-free variety. In its native European environment, tall fescue is found in damp grasslands, river banks, and in coastal seashore locations. Its distribution is a factor of climatic, edaphic, or other environmental attributes.

History in the US

Tall fescue was introduced into the United States in the late 1800s, but it did not establish itself as a widely used perennial forage until the 1940s. As in Europe, tall fescue has become an important, well-adapted cool season forage grass for agriculture in the US with many cultivars. In addition to forage, it has become an important grass for turf and soil conservation. This non-native grass has become well adapted to the southeast US and now occupies over .

The dominant cultivar grown in the United States is Kentucky 31. In 1931 E. N. Fergus, a professor of agronomy at the University of Kentucky, collected seed from a population on a hillside in Menifee County, Kentucky although formal cultivar release did not happen until 1943. Fergus heard about this "wonder grass" while judging a sorghum syrup competition in a nearby town. He wanted to see this grass because it was green, lush, and growing well on a sloped hillside during a drought. While visiting the site he was impressed and took seed samples with him. With this seed he conducted variety trials, initiated seed increase nurseries, and lauded its performance. It was released as Kentucky 31 in 1943 and today it dominates grasslands in the humid southeastern US. In 1943, Fergus and others recognized this tall fescue cultivar as being vigorous, widely adaptable, able to withstand poor soil conditions, resistant to pests and drought.

Tall Fescue Description

Tall fescue is a long-lived perennial bunchgrass species. Photosynthesis occurs throughout the leaves, which form bunches and are thick and wide with prominent veins running the length. The underside of the leaf may be shiny. Emerging leaves are rolled in the bud with no prominent ligule. The auricles are usually blunt but occasionally may be more clawlike. The culm is round in cross-section. Typically, this species of grass has a long growing season and ranges between 2 to tall in seedhead stage..

Tall fescue spreads through seed transmission only - not by stolons or rhizomes, which are common in many grass species. However, tall fescue may have numerous sterile shoots that extend the width of each bunch. There are approximately 227,000 seeds per pound.

Typically found across the southeast US, tall fescue performs best in soils with pH values between 5.5 to 7. Growth may occur year-round if conditions are adequate, but typically growth ceases when soil temperature falls below .

Endophyte association

Tall fescue can be found growing in most soils of the southeast including marginal, acidic, and poorly drained soils and in areas of low fertility, and where stresses occur due to drought and overgrazing. These beneficial attributes are now known to be a result of a symbiotic association with the fungus Neotyphodium coenophialum..

This association between tall fescue and the endophyte is a symbiotic relationship since each benefits from the mutualism. The fungus remains completely intercellular, growing between the cells of the aboveground parts of its grass host. The fungus on its own is nonreproductive, although it can be made to reproduce on a Petri plate in culture. It is transmitted to new generations of tall fescue only through seed, a mode known as vertical transmission. In other words, the fungus cannot live on its own, and has an ecological advantage when symbiosis occurs in the grass. The ungerminated seed and fungal symbiont are living organisms and have life spans. The fungus is able to survive in the host for a limited amount of time. Typically, after a year or two of storage the fungal endophyte will die in the seed, and if germinated the stand will be endophyte-free.

When the tall fescue endophyte relationship occurs, it confers a competitive advantage to the plant. Endophyte-infected tall fescue compared to endophyte-free tall fescue deters herbivory by insects and mammals, bestows drought resistance, and disease resistance. In return for shelter, seed transmission, and nutrients the endophyte produces secondary metabolites. These metabolites, namely alkaloids, are responsible for increased plant fitness. Alkaloids in endophytic tall fescue include pyrrolizidines (lolines), ergot alkaloids (clavines, lysergic acids, and derivative alkaloids), and pyrrolopyrazine (peramine).

The lolines are the most abundant alkaloids, with concentrations 1000 higher than those of ergot alkaloids. Neither endophytes grown in culture nor endophyte-free tall fescue produce produce lolines; therefore, the mutualism between the host and endophyte is needed to produce the specific alkaloid. Lolines have been shown to deter insect herbivory, and may cause various other responses in higher organisms. Despite their lower concentrations, ergot alkaloids appear to significantly affect animal growth. Ergots cause changes in normal homeostatic mechanisms in animals that result in toxicity manifested through reduced weight gains, elevated core temperatures, restricted blood flow, reduced milk production and reproductive problems. Peramine, like the ergot alkaloids, is found in much lower concentrations in the host compared with loline alkaloids. Its activity has been shown to be primarily insecticidal, and has not been linked to toxicity in mammals or other herbivores.

Endophyte infected tall fescue effects on animals

Broodmares and foals

Horses are especially prone to reproductive problems associated with tall fescue, often resulting in death of the foal, mare, or both. Horses which are pregnant may be strongly affected by alkaloids produced by the tall fescue symbiont. Broodmares that forage on infected fescue may have prolonged gestation, foaling difficulty, thickened placenta, or impaired lactation. In addition, the foals may be born weakened or dead. To moderate toxicosis, it is recommended that pregnant mares should be taken off infected tall fescue pasture for 60-90 days before foaling as late gestation problems are most common.


Fescue toxicity in cattle appears as roughening of the coat in the summer and intolerance to heat. Cattle that graze on tall fescue are more likely to stay in the shade or wade in the water in hot weather. In the winter, a condition known as "fescue foot" might afflict cattle. This results from vasoconstriction of the blood vessels especially in the extremities, and causes a gangrenous condition. Untreated, the hoof might slough off. Additionally, cattle may experience decreased weight gains and poor milk production when heavily grazing infected tall fescue pasture. To deter toxicosis cattle should be given alternative feed to dilute their infected tall fescue intake.

Nutrient pools under tall fescue pasture

Carbon cycling in terrestrial ecosystems is a major focus of research. Terrestrial carbon sequestration is the process of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via photosynthesis and storing this carbon in either plant or soil carbon pools. Increases in soil organic carbon help aggregate the soil, increase infiltration, reduce erosion, increase soil fertility, and act as a long lived pools of soil carbon. Many studies have suggested that long term endophyte-infected tall fescue plots increase soil carbon storage in the soil by limiting the microbial and macrofaunal activity to break down endophyte infected organic matter input and by increasing inputs of carbon via plant production. While the long term studies tend to show and increase in carbon storage, the short term studies do not. However, short term studies have shown that the endophyte association results in higher above- and belowground plant biomass production compared to uninfected plants, as well as a decrease in certain microbial communities. Site-specific characteristics, such as management and climate, need to be further understood to realize the ecological role and potential benefits of tall fescue and the endophyte association as it relates to carbon sequestration.

Novel endophytes

New cultivars are being bred and tested every year. A major focus of research is producing endophyte-infected tall fescue cultivars that have no detrimental effects to livestock while keeping the endophytic effects of reduced insect herbivory, disease resistance, drought tolerance, and extended growing season. Novel endophytes, also referred to as "friendly" endophytes, are symbiotic fungi that are associated with tall fescue, but do not produce target alkaloids in toxic concentrations. A widely used and tested novel endophyte is called MaxQ and is grown in the tall fescue grass host Georgia-Jesup. This cultivar of tall fescue-novel endophyte combination produces ergot alkaloids at near zero levels while maintaining the concentration of other alkaloids.

Tall Fescue Information System

More information can be found on the Tall Fescue Information System (TFIS). This resource provides up to the date, peer reviewed information relating to tall fescue.


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