Hyparrhenia hirta (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
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Hyparrhenia hirta (L.) Stapf

Protologue: Prain, Fl. trop. Afr. 9: 315 (1919).
Family: Poaceae (Gramineae)
Chromosome number: n = 30, 2n = 30, 40, 44, 45, 46.


  • Andropogon hirtus L.

Vernacular names

  • Tambookie grass, common thatch grass, coolatan grass, South African bluestem, hirta grass (En).
  • Barbon, barbon velu, barbon hérissé, herbe barbue (Fr).
  • Palha da Guiné (Po).

Origin and geographic distribution

Hyparrhenia hirta is mainly distributed in the Mediterranean region and north-eastern tropical Africa, extending eastwards through the Middle East and Arabia to Pakistan. In northern tropical Africa it occurs in Cape Verde, southern Algeria and in isolated locations in Niger. In eastern Africa its distribution range extends from Egypt southwards through Ethiopia to Tanzania, and it occurs again in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Scattered occurrences are recorded from southern tropical Africa, Madagascar, and Congo. Hyparrhenia hirta is naturalized and cultivated in the Americas and Australia.


Hyparrhenia hirta is used as a thatching grass and for making mats and baskets. In Lesotho the stems are used for weaving large (up to 2 m tall) baskets for storage of grain. The plant is not suitable for pulping. Young grass is grazed by all stock and can be stored as fair quality hay or silage. Some reports from South Africa state that good hay can be made under proper management. When older, it becomes too coarse and unpalatable to be useful as hay or as a stand-over forage for deferred grazing. In southern Africa and the United States it is recognized as a useful grass for conservation on hard stony soils, and as a pioneer for revegetation of eroded areas.

Production and international trade

Hyparrhenia hirta is only used and traded locally.


According to the South African Standard for fine thatching grass the cut length of Hyparrhenia hirta stems should not be less than 0.8 m, stems should have a minimum and maximum diameter at the butt end of 1.2 mm and 2.5 mm, respectively, be acceptably straight (cut above the first node), be free of loose material, be workable, not be cut in the growing season, be fully grown and matured, and be free of seed when cut.

As a forage grass, Hyparrhenia hirta is not very palatable, except when very young. Chemical analyses in Kenya indicated the nutritive value of the grass as: crude protein 3.2%, crude fibre 38.1%, N-free extract 45.6%, ether extract 1.8%, total ash 11.3%, digestible crude protein 0.7%, total digestible nutrients 49.6%.


Tufted, perennial grass arising from a short rhizome; stems wiry, up to 60(–120) cm tall, above a dense leafy tussock 10–20 cm high. Leaves alternate; sheath compressed and keeled, glabrous or rarely obscurely puberulous at the base; ligule up to 4 mm long, thin-membranous; blade narrowly linear to folded and filiform, 2–20(–30) cm × 1–3(–4) mm, flexuous, glaucous, harshly scaberulous, glabrous or nearly so.

Inflorescence a false panicle up to 30 cm long, scanty with only 2–10 raceme-pairs but sometimes a little fuller, each raceme pair on a peduncle and subtended by a sheathing spatheole; spatheoles linear-lanceolate, 3–8 cm long, reddish; peduncles about as long as the spatheoles, glabrous or with white hairs above; racemes 2–4 cm long, 8–15(–20)-awned per pair, white-villous, exserted, never deflexed, each bearing 4–7(–8) fertile spikelets, the lower raceme of a pair bearing a basal pair of homogamous, sterile or male, pedicelled spikelets, the upper raceme bearing 0–1(–2) pairs of homogamous spikelets. Upper spikelets in pairs, sessile spikelet fertile, pedicelled spikelet sterile or male; sessile spikelet 3.5–6.5 mm long, falling entire and with accessory branch structures, callus 0.5–1.5 mm long, lower glume linear-elliptical, yellowish-green to violet, white-villous but occasionally the hairs rather sparse, upper glume linear and awnless, lower floret reduced to hyaline lemma, fertile floret with linear, membranous lemma with awn 10–35 mm long, palea absent or minute; pedicelled spikelet narrowly lanceolate, 3–8 mm long, white-villous, callus absent. Fruit an oblong, subterete caryopsis.

Other botanical information

Hyparrhenia is classified into 6 sections and comprises about 55 species, mainly African but with a few species extending into other tropical or warm temperate regions. Hyparrhenia specimens are very difficult to identify to species level. As a result of hybridization, apomixis and polyploidy, it consists of a mosaic of intergrading species. Hyparrhenia hirta is classified in section Polydistachyophorum series Hirtae; it is a widespread and variable species which intergrades with several others, including Hyparrhenia filipendula (Hochst.) Stapf which has a more graceful, slender habit; with Hyparrhenia anamesa Clayton which typically has 2 pairs of homogamous spikelets on the upper raceme, and with Hyparrhenia rufa (Nees) Stapf which usually has reddish brown hairs on the spikelets. Hyparrhenia hirta is best recognized by its scanty panicle of white-villous racemes which never deflex, by the many-awned racemes with 0–1(–2) homogamous pairs of spikelets at the base of the superior, and by the harsh narrow leaves forming a basal tussock.

Several other Hyparrhenia species are used for thatching. Examples in series Hirtae of section Polydistachyophorum are:

Hyparrhenia anamesa Clayton: a perennial grass forming dense, spreading tufts, with stems 60–120 cm tall, distributed in East and southern Africa from Sudan southward to the Cape area in South Africa, at 100–2500 m altitude. It links the primarily Mediterranean Hyparrhenia hirta to the tropical Hyparrhenia filipendula. It provides good thatching.

Hyparrhenia violascens (Stapf) Clayton: an annual grass with erect stems up to 1 m tall. It occurs in West Africa, Cameroun and Chad. When mature it is used for thatching and to make coarse matting and door-screens. It furnishes good fodder when young.

Grasses mainly used as thatching material and classified in the related series Rufae include:

– Hyparrhenia finitima (Hochst.) Andersson ex Stapf: a tufted perennial grass with erect, robust stems 1–2 m long. It occurs widely dispersed in East and southern Africa from Ethiopia southward to South Africa, and in Sierra Leone, at 900–2000 m altitude. In Zambia it is used for thatching.

Hyparrhenia nyassae (Rendle) Stapf (‘bush thatching grass’): a tufted, perennial grass with stems up to 200 cm tall, distributed from Cameroon eastward to Ethiopia and southward to South Africa, at 40–2600 m altitude. In Zambia the stems serve as an inferior thatch. The grain has been eaten in Sudan in times of famine. The grass is browsed by stock while still young and tender.

Hyparrhenia smithiana (Hook.f.) Stapf: a tufted perennial grass with erect, moderately slender stems, occurring in West Africa. Two varieties are recognized: var. smithiana with stems 30–90 cm tall, and var. major Clayton with stems 1.5–2.5 m tall. Var. major yields a good thatch.

Growth and development

Hyparrhenia hirta follows the C4-pathway of photosynthesis.


Hyparrhenia hirta occurs in grassland, rocky places and open woodland, in southern Africa mostly in upland dambos. It is found from the shores of the Mediterranean sea up to 2600 m in East Africa. It grows satisfactorily with an annual rainfall of 500 mm or more; in Africa with an average annual rainfall of 750–1000 mm. It is extremely drought tolerant and persistent. It is sensitive to frost and is killed in a hard winter in the United States, but gives some winter growth in South and Western Australia. It occurs on a wide range of soil types, including dry, hard, rocky soils and deep dry sands. It is tolerant of fire. In South Africa Hyparrhenia hirta, often together with Themeda triandra Forssk., dominates several of the tall-grass- veld vegetation types, particularly in disturbed veld. Long-term overgrazing leads to replacement and dominance of Eragrostis curvula (Schrad.) Nees, Eragrostis plana Nees and Sporobolus africanus (Poir.) Robyns & Tournay. Where selective overgrazing has occurred, particularly by sheep, Elionurus muticus (Spreng.) Kunth tends to increase in relative abundance. In a trial with sown Eragrostis curvula, Eragrostis plana, Chloris gayana Kunth and Digitaria eriantha Steud. grassland in the Highveld in South Africa, the introduced sown species were replaced by native grasses within a few years; native Eragrostis spp. and Sporobolus pyramidalis were early invaders, and were later replaced by Hyparrhenia hirta which formed nearly pure stands with some broad-leaved species. In Gauteng Province, South Africa Hyparrhenia hirta dominated grassland has almost completely replaced the endemic ‘Egoli granite grassland’, a much more diverse grassland with patchy dominance of many grass species.

Propagation and planting

Hyparrhenia hirta generally does not spread well by seed. There are about 1.3 million seeds per kg. Below 25°C germination rates are low. In tests in Australia, seed germinated within 24 hours at day and night temperatures of 30°C and 20°C, respectively. Light had a slight positive effect on germination, but not daylength. Germination was good at soil pH 4–10, salinity was disadvantageous.


Heavy grazing is tolerated well and is required to prevent plants forming seed and becoming inedible. Top-dressing with 50 kg N/ha in midsummer also extends the period that it can be grazed. Hyparrhenia hirta is usually burnt to destroy old growth and it recovers well after fire. It responds well to a spring application of nitrogen. In experiments in south-western Australia, 2 introduced strains showed low nitrogen requirements when heavily defoliated, but responded well to summer and autumn applications.

In Zambia, repeated cutting during 9 years of Hyparrhenia hirta dominated grassland led to a marked increase in basal cover of veld grasses. Short grasses, such as Cynodon dactylon (L.) Pers. and Heteropogon contortus (L.) P.Beauv. ex Roem. & Schult., increased at the expense of tall tussock grasses, but Hyparrhenia hirta was little affected and remained dominant.

Diseases and pests

From Hyparrhenia hirta affected by smut, several fungi of the genus Sporisorium have been isolated.


Under irrigation in south-western Australia Hyparrhenia hirta produced 24,000–30,000 kg dry matter/ha with six fertilizer dressings totalling 168 kg/ha N, 66 kg/ha P and 180 kg/ha K, plus lime and zinc. In the Hyparrhenia veld in South Africa, cattle increase in weight and milk production from late November to March when pasture leaf protein is high (21% in late November, falling to 6% in early April). Thereafter, live weight and milk production decline. In a trial in South Africa Hyparrhenia hirta produced about 3 times more above-ground biomass than Themeda triandra, Eragrostis curvula or Aristida junciformis Trin. & Rupr., but after 2 or 4 weeks drought, production of all species dropped to very low levels.

Genetic resources

Hyparrhenia hirta is widespread and often dominant. As it also responds well to intensive grazing, there are no indications that it is under threat of genetic erosion. Computer models indicate that its range may expand strongly as a result of climate change which may negatively influence the quality of currently productive grasslands.


No cultivars have yet been established, but 150 distinct forms have been recorded in the introductions into Australia.


Hyparrhenia hirta is likely to remain an important and widely available source of thatch. Its ability to establish on hard stony soils and eroded land and its drought tolerance and persistence make it suitable for revegetation and erosion control. It will remain an important component of natural grazing lands in many parts of tropical Africa, but is likely to remain of little importance in sown grasslands as more palatable and nutritious species are available.

Major references

  • Clayton, W.D., 1969. A revision of Hyparrhenia. Kew Bulletin, Additional Series 2, H.M.S.O., London, United Kingdom. 195 pp.
  • Clayton, W.D., 1975. Some discriminant functions for Hyparrhenia. Studies in the Gramineae XLI. Kew Bulletin 30(3): 511–520.
  • Clayton, W.D. & Renvoize, S.A., 1982. Gramineae (part 3). In: Polhill, R.M. (Editor). Flora of Tropical East Africa. A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam, Netherlands. pp. 451–898.
  • Clayton, W.D., Harman, K.T. & Williamson, H., 2002–. GrassBase - the online world grass flora. [Internet] Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, United Kingdom.http://www.kew.org/ data/grasses-db/. April 2011.
  • Cope, T.A., 1995. Poaceae (Gramineae). In: Thulin, M. (Editor). Flora of Somalia. Volume 4. Angiospermae (Hydrocharitaceae-Pandanaceae). Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. pp. 148–270.
  • Cope, T.A., 2002. Gramineae, tribe Andropogoneae. In: Pope, G.V. & Martins, E.S. (Editors). Flora Zambesiaca. Volume 10, part 4. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 190 pp.
  • Greenwood, E.A.N., 1966. The response to nitrogen of two strains of Hyparrhenia hirta under irrigation and defoliation. Field Station Record, Division of Plant Industry, CSIRO 5(1): 29–36.
  • Karue, C.N., 1974. The nutritive value of herbage in semi-arid lands of East Africa. 1. Chemical composition. East African Agricultural and Forestry Journal 40: 89–95.
  • Phillips, S., 1995. Poaceae (Gramineae). In: Hedberg, I. & Edwards, S. (Editors). Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Volume 7. Poaceae (Gramineae). The National Herbarium, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Department of Systematic Botany, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden. 420 pp.
  • Robinson, B.P. & Potts, R.C., 1950. The history of Hyparrhenia hirta and studies of its flowering habits and seed production. Agronomy Journal 42: 395–397.

Other references

  • Bredenkamp, G.J., Brown, L.R. & Pfab, M.F., 2006. Conservation value of the Egoli Granite Grassland, an endemic grassland in Gauteng, South Africa. Koedoe 49(2): 59–66.
  • Chejara, V.K., Kristiansen, P., Whalley, R.D.B., Sindel, B.M. & Nadolny, C., 2008. Factors affecting germination of Coolatai grass (Hyparrhenia hirta). Weed Science 56 (4): 543–548.
  • Chejara, V.K., Kriticos, D.J., Kristiansen, P., Sindel, B.M., Whalley, R.D.B. & Nadolny, C., 2010. The current and future potential geographical distribution of Hyparrhenia hirta. Weed Research 50: 174–184.
  • CIAT/FAO, undated. Hyparrhenia hirta. [Internet] In: Grassland species profiles. CIAT/FAO, Rome, Italy. http://www.fao.org/ ag/AGP/AGPC/doc/gbase/data/ Pf000258.htm. March 2011.
  • Davidson, R.L., 1962. The influence of edaphic factors on the species composition of early stages of the subsere [secondary succession]. Journal of Ecology 50(2): 401–410.
  • du Toit, J.C.O., 2010. Species/defoliation/drought interactions on tuft survival and tiller and phytomass production in four sourveld grass species in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. African Journal of Range & Forage Science 27(1): 57–60.
  • Evans, L.T., 1975. Photoperiodism and photosynthetic pathways. Canadian Journal of Botany 53: 590–591.
  • Hardy, M.B. & Camp, K.G.T., undated. Veld in KwaZulu-Natal. Bioresource groups 11, 12 and 15: moist transitional tall grassveld, moist tall grassveld and moist lowland tall grassveld. [Internet] Agricultural Production Guidelines. http://agriculture.kzntl.gov.za/ publications/production_guidelines/veld_in_natal/ veld_4.6.htm. April 2011.
  • Leigh, J.H., 1961. Persistence of some varieties of pasture grass and their susceptibility to invasion by other species. Journal of Ecology 49(2): 341–345.
  • Lodge, G.M., McCormick, L.H. & Harden, S., 2005. Grazing studies of a Hyparrhenia hirta (Coolatai grass) pasture in northern New South Wales. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 45(12): 1603–1611.
  • Poilecot, P., 1999. Les Poaceae du Niger. Boissiera 56: 1–766.
  • Risopoulos, S.R., 1966. Management and use of grass lands: Democratic Republic of Congo. Pasture and Fodder Crops Studies No 1. FAO, Rome, Italy. 212 pp.
  • Rogers, A.L. & Bailey, E.T., 1963. Salt tolerance trials with forage plants in southwestern Australia. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture and Animal Husbandry 3: 125–130.
  • South African National Standard, 2004. Specification for grass. [Internet] SANS 10407:2004. Thatched roof construction. Edition 1. South African Thatchers Association, Lyttelton, South Africa. http://www.sa-thatchers.co.za/ wp-content/uploads/2010/09/ SpecificationForGrass.pdf. April 2011.
  • Vánky, K., 2003. The smut fungi (Ustilaginomycetes) of Hyparrhenia (Poaceae). Fungal Diversity 12: 179–205.
  • van Rensburg, H.J., 1968. Growth and seasonal composition of natural grassland in Zambia. Grass and Forage Science 23(1): 51–52.
  • Williamson, J., 1955. Useful plants of Nyasaland. The Government Printer, Zomba, Nyasaland. 168 pp.

Sources of illustration

  • Phillips, S., 1995. Poaceae (Gramineae). In: Hedberg, I. & Edwards, S. (Editors). Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Volume 7. Poaceae (Gramineae). The National Herbarium, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Department of Systematic Botany, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden. 420 pp.


  • S. Kativu, Tropical Resource Ecology Programme (TREP), Department of Biological Sciences, University of Zimbabwe, P.O. Box MP 167, Mount Pleasant, Harare, Zimbabwe

Correct citation of this article

Kativu, S., 2011. Hyparrhenia hirta (L.) Stapf. [Internet] Record from PROTA4U. Brink, M. & Achigan-Dako, E.G. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. <http://www.prota4u.org/search.asp>.

Accessed 13 November 2020.