Melica decumbens


Family: Poaceae (grass family)
Common names: staggers grass (Eng.); dronkgras (Afr.)

Melica decumbens

This is a short grass producing many flowering stems with spikelets (flowers) that usually have dark purple glumes (bracts) that contrast beautifully with the long silky hairs present. Although not known in cultivation as yet, it is surely a grass worth trying in the garden.

Staggers grass is a tufted perennial growing to about 500 mm tall. It is a very coarse plant with leaves that are usually rolled and very rough to the touch. The spikelets have long silky hairs on the inside and are surrounded by papery, hairless, usually purple bracts. Flowering time is throughout most of the summer, from October to April.

DistributionMelica decumbens has a limited distribution in South Africa, being found only in the arid areas of central South Africa, namely Free State, parts of the Northern Cape, Eastern and Western Cape and in Lesotho (see map). Staggers grass and M. racemosa (melic grass, haakgras) are endemic, that is, these two species occur only in South Africa and Lesotho.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
The origin of the genus name Melica is uncertain, but mel is derived from the Latin meaning honey and ica means 'belonging to'. The species name decumbens comes from the Latin meaning prostrate on the earth with the tips turning up.
The genus has about 80 species and occurs mainly in the temperate regions of the world. It can easily be confused with the other species in South Africa, Melica racemosa, a more widespread species. In this species the spikelets are usually smaller, not purple, and the plant is much more straggling with an open tuft.

It grows on hill- and mountainsides amongst rocks, under trees and shrubs, occasionally in disturbed areas along roadsides.

Uses and cultural aspects
The name 'staggers' comes from the fact that if cattle, donkeys and horses eat large quantities they display behaviour like a drunk person and stagger about. It is not fatal and the animal will recover, if looked after. Luckily, because of the very coarse leaves, it is not very palatable except in the very young stage.

Staggers grass

Growing Melica decumbens

Staggers grass grows between rocks and is fairly short, therefore could probably be used well as a border plant or on a rockery. It will also grow in semi-shade. As far as known it has never been cultivated in gardens, but as it is very pretty, especially when covered with dew or raindrops, it seems worthwhile to try and introduce staggers grass in one's wild and/or indigenous garden.
Any information on the cultivation of Melica decumbens will be appreciated. My email is

References and further reading

  • Gibbs Russell, G.E., Watson, L., Koekemoer, M., Smook, L., Barker, N.P., Anderson, H.M. & Dallwitz, M.J. 1991. Grasses of southern Africa. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 58.
  • Kellerman, T.S., Coetzer, J.A.W. & Naudé, T.W. 1988. Plant poisonings and mycotoxicoses of livestock in southern Africa. Oxford University Press, Cape Town.
  • Moffett, R. 1997. Grasses of the eastern Free State. UNIQWA, Phuthaditjhaba.
  • Van Oudtshoorn, F. 1999. A guide to the grasses of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.

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