Canada wild rye

Seed heads of Canada wild rye.

Canada wild rye is a native grass that was part of the tallgrass prairie.  It is a cool season, clumping grass, best used in areas where naturalizing is desirable as it has a tendency to self seed. 

"This species is native to the Chicago Region according to Swink and Wilhelm's Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research."  

Botanical name:

Elymus canadensis

All Common Names:

Canada wild rye, Great Plains wild rye, nodding wild rye, Canada lyme grass

Family (English):


Family (Botanic):


Tree or Plant Type:

  • Grass,
  • Perennial

Native Locale:

  • Chicago area,
  • Illinois,
  • North America

Landscape Uses:

  • Massing

Size Range:

  • Large plant (more than 24 inches)

Light Exposure:

  • Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)

Hardiness Zones:

  • Zone 3,
  • Zone 4,
  • Zone 5 (Chicago),
  • Zone 6,
  • Zone 7,
  • Zone 8

Soil Preference:

  • Moist, well-drained soil

Season of Interest:

  • Early winter,
  • Mid winter,
  • Late winter,
  • Early summer,
  • Mid summer,
  • Late summer,
  • Early fall,
  • Mid fall,
  • Late fall

Flower Color & Fragrance:

  • Other

Shape or Form:

  • Arching,
  • Upright

More Information:

Size and Form

Canada wild rye normally grows 2 to 3 feet tall, but may reach 5 feet tall if moisture is adequate.  Form is upright to upright-arching.

Plant Care

This grass will readily self-seed and fill in quickly, making it more appropriate for prairie plantings than for home flower beds.
Full sun is best.  Tolerant of both moist and dry soils, but best growth occurs when moisture is adequate.

This is a cool season grass, so its most active growth occurs in spring and fall.  Unlike many other cool season grasses, It will go dormant in  winter, but can still act as winter interest.

It should not be cut back until early spring, before new growth begins.  At that time, it can be cut down to the ground.

Disease, pests, and problems

No serious pest problems.
This can be a short lived perennial.  It is often used as a nurse crop in prairie establishment as it will grow and fill in quickly, but later die out and allow slower growing grasses to become dominant.

Native geographic location and habitat

C-Value: 4

Native to most of North America.  Found in a variety of habitats.

Leaf description

Alternate leaves are about 1/2 inch wide and 12 inches long, with a rough surface.  The underside of the leaf may have a bluish tinge.  Foliage turns tan in winter

Flower description

Flowering occurs in mid-summer.  Tiny flowers are held in arched, drooping spikes.  Spikes feature long awns (bristles). Flowers are bluish-green.

Fruit description

The small fruit (caryopsis or grains) are held in the arched drooping spikes.  As the fruit mature, the awns (bristles) spread out and become more curved.  Fruit is tan in fall and winter.


Location of Elymus canadensis (Canada wild rye) at the Arboretum