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Basin wildrye

Scientific Name:
Leymus cinereus
Native Name(s):
  1. Klamath: Gla'-i pi (Coville 1897)
  2. Northern Paiute: waiya' (Kelly 1932); waiya (Couture et. al. 1986); waiyabə (Fowler 1989); waiyab (Fowler 1989); waiyaba (Fowler 1989); wiyab (Fowler 1989)
This hardy perennial grows in clumps with heights ranging from 70 to 210 centimeters. It is a cool season native with a large fibrous root system, making it drought-tolerant. Leaf blades are long and flat, coming to a point at their tip (15 to 25 inches long; up to ¾ inches wide). Seed heads are produced from the middle of June to the middle of July and are typically 6 to 10 inches long. Once the plant has gone to seed, basal leaf growth is minimal and the plant quickly becomes dense with the strong, coarse reproductive stems. Seeds range in size from 7.5 - 10.5 millimeters. They are linear to oblong in shape and appear light brown in color.
Identification tips
Leymus cinereus is easy to distinguish from other grasses because of its height. It is much taller than other bunchgrasses, and has spiked, stiff, erect leaves.
Starch granules
Trimodal size distribution ranging from 2 to 23 microns in length. Approximately 20% of granules fall into the large size category. Large granules are discoidal, some with margins cracked, faint lamellae, centric hilum, dull cross with diffuse center. Medium granules are ellipsoid with less cracking, faint lamellae, and indistinct crosses. Small granules are subround,no lamellae or peripheral cracks, cross with wavy arms, lacks symmetry.

Occurs from sea level up to almost 10,000 feet. It can be found within Sagebrush Scrub, Pinyon-Juniper Woodland, and wetland/riparian zones.


Leymus cinereus is native to the Great Plains and Intermountain regions of the western United States.


The Klamath used the seed grains as food (Coville 1987). The Modoc probably used the seeds for food as well but also utilized the cut blades of grass in their homes, placing several inches beneath tule mats (Kelly 1932). The Paiute similarly used this species for its seed, as well as for building and weaving material (Couture 1978).

As food

Klamath: "A tall grass, 1 to 2 meters (about 3 to 6 feet) in height, growing in bunches along the river bottoms and locally known as "rye grass." The large grains were formerly and still are to some extent being used for food under the name gla'-i-pi-äm'' (Coville 1897:91)

Northern Paiute: "Seeds traditionally harvested, including waada (Suaeda depressa), Indian rice grass (Oryzopsis hymenoides), and Great Basin wild rye (Elymus cinereus), are still available in the area..." (Couture et al. 1986:150)

Northern Paiute: "The concentration of resources at Malheur Lake fostered social gatherings.  Our consultants among the Burns Paiute confirm Whiting's (1950) statements that large numbers of people congregated there in late summer to harvest waada seeds, to fish, and to hunt migratory fowl.  Other seeds also were harvested there, including saltbrush, giant wild rye, Indian rice grass, and blazing star." (Couture et al. 1986:154)


Modoc: "When grass-covered, the house was called waha'-nobi (from papa'-waha'ba, rye grass). The grass, four or five feet in height, was cut near the ground and twined into mats which were applied to the frame the same as those of tule." (Kelly 1932:105)

Northern Paiute: "When people wintered in the pinenut mountains they dug a space about a foot deep where the house was to be built...If the house was to be occupied only during the harvesting of pinenuts, the frame was thickly covered with waiyab and pine branches. If the house was to be used for several winters, branches of the grass would be sewn together like a broom...These bunches of grass are tied on the frame of the house. The bunches of grass were put on in rows like shingles with each row overlapping the one below it."  (Fowler 1989:93)

Northern Paiute: "A hair brush was made from waiyaba, wild rye [Elymus cinereus] which grows in bunches in the valleys.  The seeds are used for food.  The roots are dug up and a handful of the grass 12 to 14 in. long is tied together in the center.  Then the bunch is doubled over and again tied in the center.  The ends are evened off in the fire.  This also hardens the ends.  It makes a good brush that is good and strong.  It is called wunadzo." (Fowler 1989:111)

Distribution Map: