The grass family contains more species than any other family of flowering plants, and grasses directly or indirectly, provide the bulk of the world’s food. The cultivated domestic grasses, barley, maize, millet, oats, rice, sorghum and wheat provide food directly through the harvesting of their seeds other grasses provide food indirectly through grazing animals. Cattle, sheep and goats convert grass, which is unsuitable for human food into meat which is a high protein human food.

“Veld” is an Afrikaans word which has been adopted in Africa to refer to the natural grazing, and is made up mainly of grasses, but also shrubs and trees.

In Africa more than 90% of the land is covered in veld which is natural vegetation, and the livestock industry is based on converting the grasses of the veld into meat. There are thousands of grass species found in Africa. This lecture lists the names of about 50 of the common species and illustrates a few examples.

The Ecology of grasses is the study of where certain grasses will grow i.e. their habitat, and why they grow in that particular area. Each grass prefers certain conditions of soil, moisture rain or ground water, temperature, shade etc. Some grasses will disappear from the veld under adverse conditions such as heavy grazing or disturbance of the soil, and those grasses together with the grasses that replace them can be used as indicators of whether the veld is stable or disturbed. When the veld is stable, it contains the grasses which can make the best possible use of the climatic and soil conditions. These grasses are called the climax species: When the veld is disturbed or over-grazed, rainwater does not penetrate the soil to the same extent because it runs off the bare soil. This results in the climax species being replaced by grasses which are lower down the scale of succession because these grasses need less moisture, can withstand heavy grazing and can start to grow in bare soil. An example of this is Hyparrhenia, a climax grass, being replaced in the veld by Sporobolus which is a poorer grass.

Grasses can become sick and die out like any other plant or animal. Veld management aims to keep the most desirable grasses on the veld, and in a healthy state. Keeping the climax grasses on the veld performs the following functions

  • The maximum amount of forage is available for the grazing animal.
  • The soil of the veld is covered by herbage and this helps rain water to penetrate the soil and prevents run-off from the soil surface.


In order to identify the different grasses it is necessary to know their characteristics and the botanical terms used to describe them. The diagram on the following page shows the main Stem of the grass plant and the three types of flowering heads that appear on different grasses.

Figure 1: Stem of the grass plant and flowering heads of the grass plant


Grasses are either annual, completing their life cycle in one year, or they are perennial and live for two or more years.


These are fibrous and occur at the base of the plant, and sometimes at the joints of the stems.


Grasses that are tufted have upright stems and form thick tufts of leaves, stems and roots. Runner grasses send out horizontal stems which root at the joints and form new plants; these grasses spread very quickly, an example being couch grass or star grass. The horizontal stems can be stolons, which run along the ground, or rhizomes which run under the ground.

The main upright stem is called the culm and the joints in the stem are called nodes. The culm bears leaves from most of the nodes and ends in the flower head or inflorescence. The culm can be simple or it can be branched.


These consist of the lower part known as the leaf-sheath and the upper part known as the blade which hangs away from the culm. Where the leaf-sheath and the blade join, there is usually the ligule on the upper surface and the collar on the lower surface. The ligule can be a membrane or a ring of hairs and can be useful for identifying a grass. Leaf-sheaths and blades vary in shape, size, colour, margins,(smooth or.serrated) and whether they are rolled, folded or expanded.


This bears the flowers and later the seeds of the grass plant. Flowers are borne between two small modified leaves called bracts and the flower and the bracts form a floret. Florets either single or in groups, have two more bracts called glumes at their base, and the whole group is called a spikelet. In many grasses, for example Hyparrhenia, one of the bracts extends to a bristle called an awn.

When the spikelets are carried on the sub-division of a branch, the flower head is called a panicle as in Panicum grasses. Where the primary branches of the flower-head have no sub-divisions, the head is called a raceme or a spike.


The following list gives the common names and the botanical names of a few of the common veld grasses of Southern Africa (South of the Zambezi). Most of them are also found in East Africa.

Botanical NameCommon Name
Alloteropsis semialataBlack seed grass
Andropogon gayanumsBlue grass
Andopogon eucomisSnowflake grass
Aristida congestaBristle grass
Aristida junciformisSteekgras. Ngongoni
Bothriochloa insculptaPinhole grass
Bothriochloa glabraPurple Tassle
Brachiaria nigropedataBlack Footed Brachiaria
Brachiaria serrataVelvet Signalgrass
Cenchrus ciliarisBlue Buffalo Grass. Foxtail
Botanical NameCommon Name
Chloris gayanaRhoes grass
Chloris virgataOld Land grass
Cymbopogon excavatesTurpentine grass
Cymbopogon plurinodisBushveld Turpentine
Cynodon dactylonCouch grass, Kweekgras
Dactyloctenium giganteumGiant Crows Foot
Digitaria diagonalisFinger grass
Digitaria erianthaSmuts Finger grass
Digitaria sanguinalisCrab Finger grass
Diheteropogon amplectens 
Diheteropogon filifoliusWire Bluestem
Eleusine indicaGoosegrass, Osgras
Elonurus argenteusWire Lemongrass
Eragrostis capensisHeartseed Love grass
Eragrostis curvulaWeepeing Love grass
Eragrostis planaMchigi. Fan Love grass
Eragrostis rigidiorCurly Leaf Love grass
Eragrostis superbHeart Love grass
Hemarthria altissimaSwamp grass
Heteropogon contortusSpear grass
Hyparrhenia filipendulaThatching grass
Hyparrhenia hirtaShort Thatch grass
Hyparrhenia rufaTall Thatch grass
Botanical NameCommon Name
Hyperthelia dissolutaYellow Thatch grass
Loudetin simplexRusset grass
Monocymbium ceresiiformeOat grass
Panicum coloratumBuffalo grass. Bambatsi grass
Panicum maximumGuinea grass
Paspalum dilatatumDallis grass
Paspalum notatumBahia grass
Pennisetrum clandestinumKikuyu
Pennisetum purpureumElephant grass. Napie Fodder
Pogonarthria squarrosaCross grass
Rhynchelytrum repensNatal Red Top
Setaria nigrirostrisTimpothy
Setaria sphacelataGolden Millet
Setaria verticellata 
Sporobolus africanusRats Tail Drop seed
Sporobulus pyramidalisCats Tail
Themeda triandraRed Grass
Trachypogon spicatusGiant Spear grass
Tragus racemosisCarrot Seed
Tristachya hispidaRed Seed Grass
Unochloa mosambicensisFalse Paspalum

A few of these common grasses are illustrated on the following pages so that you can get an idea of their appearance. The illustrations are taken from the book Common Veld Grasses of Zimbabwe by Mr. C. Lightfoot and published by the Natural Resources Board.

  • Brachiaria

There are 16 species of this grass of which 8 are annuals. The flowers do not have awns, and the grass is a climax, good grazing grass.

  • Chloris gayana

Rhodes Grass. A perennial grass propagated by seeds. The Katambora strain is used in crop rotations because it is resistant to nematodes (eelworms). The grass is used for grazing and for making hay.

  • Cynodon Dactlyton

Couch Grass. A perennial grass which spreads by means of underground rhizomes. Star Grass is an improved variety which is used as a pasture grass and gives good grazing for both sheep and cattle.

  • Eleusine indica

Goose Grass. This can be either an annual or a perennial and is a troublesome weed in cultivated lands.

  • Hyparrhenia Filipendula

Thatching Grass. There are a number of species of Hyparrhenia in Southern Africa, all of them being perennial and tufted. This grass is dominant in high rainfall areas, and grows on both clay soils and sandy soils. Where land is left to revert from arable to veld, this grass will eventually take over.

  • Hyperthelia Dissoluta

Yellow Thatching Grass. Perennial and tufted, this grass grows on both moist and dryland in the highveld. Like all the thatching grasses it is palatable when young but becomes unpalatable as it grows older.

  • Heteropogon Contortus

Spear grass. A tufted, perennial grass common in areas of medium rainfall. The sharp seeds can cause irritation and infection to animals and they can damage hides and meat. When the awn is wetted, it twists to drive the seeds into the ground. Average fodder value.

  • Pennissetum purpureum

Napier Fodder or Elephant Grass. Tufted, perennial and very tall, normally growing up to 2 – 3 m high. Commonly cultivated, and can be grazed intensively in spring and cut for silage in summer.

Two other species of this grass are Kikuyu grass which is a good pasture grass and which is Bulrush or Pearl Millet grown in dry areas for the seeds.

  • Digitaria Diagonalis

Finger Grass. Tufted, perennial which grows on sand veld with moderate or good rainfall. A climax grass which gives good grazing. There, are 30 species of finger grasses.

  • Loudetia Simplex

Russet Grass. A short, densely tufted perennial. A common semi-vlei species often found on poor, leached areas of veld in the cool moist areas. A poor sour unpalatable grass.

  • Panicum Maximum

Guinea Grass. Tufted perennial propagated by seeds. Grows best on fertile soils, and makes good hay and winter grazing. Loses vigor if it is heavily grazed in summer.

  • Paspalum Orbiculare

Common Native Paspalum. A short, perennial grass. Common on wet sand- veld vleis in the middle and sourveld. Average fodder.

  • Eragrostis

Lovegrasses. There are 62 species of this grass in Southern Africa, some annual and others perennial. Most of them are weed grasses of poor grazing value.

  • Rottboelia Exaltata

Guinea Fowl Grass. Annual grass which gives good grazing but is unpleasant to handle because of the stinging hairs on the leaf-sheaths.

  • Setaria Pallidifusca

Timothy. Short, annual grass which is a common dry land veld weed in disturbed areas of poor fertility. Average fodder but very little bulk.

  • Sporobolus Pyramidalis

Cats Tail Grass. Perennial, densely tufted and very difficult to pull up. A very common weed in moderate rainfall areas, and troublesome in pastures. Poor forage and very unpalatable. There are 25 species common in the country.