Cenchrus ciliaris

buffel grass


Cenchrus ciliaris

L. 1771

pronounced: KENCK-russ sill-ee-AIR-uss

(Poaceae — the grass family)

synonym — Pennisetum ciliare

(L.) Link 1827

pronounced: pen-ih-SEE-tum sill-ee-AIR-ee

common names: buffel grass

The distinction between Pennisetum and Cenchrus is contentious. Many botanists maintain that Buffel grass and its allies should be included in Pennisetum, but Kew, in the Plant List, has come down on the side of Cenchrus. Cenchrus is from the Greek κεγχρος (kengchros), millet. Pennisetum is from two Latin words, penna, a feather, and seta (sæta), a bristle, referring to the feathery bristles of the flowers of some species. Ciliare and ciliaris are from cilium, the eyelid (usually to include the eyelashes). Buffel is Dutch for ‘buffalo’; I suspect the name comes from South Africa, where this grass is a native.

Buffel Grass has been widely introduced in the dry tropics and subtropics as a pasture grass, for erosion control, and revegetation of arid areas. The characteristics of the grass that make it suitable for erosion control are rapid germination and a high rate of propagation and establishment on poor soils. Its dominance of grassland and resistance to fire, drought and heavy grazing has made it a popular grass in large areas of Australia, the south-western parts of the USA, and Mexico. It often forms extensive dense monocultures, excluding native species and promoting intense and frequent fires. It changes plant communities by encouraging and carrying wildfires through communities that are not adapted to fire. Buffel Grass itself burns readily and recovers quickly after fire; it has a robust root system, in which its swollen stem base accumulates reserves of carbohydrates. The loss of leaf surface area after a fire or a drought is not fatal to the plant, and allows regrowth when conditions become favourable again.

This is an annual or perennial bunchgrass with erect culms 10 – 150 cm tall. It can form thick mats or tussocks with dense root systems. The basal leaf sheaths are distinctly ribbed, and sparsely hairy. The leaf sheaths themselves are loose, open for most of their length, with flat margins. The leaf blades are bluish green in colour, 3 – 25 cm long, 4 – 10 mm wide, with soft hairs on the upper surface. The leaf blade midrib is conspicuous, prominent beneath.

The inflorescence is a spike-like panicle (bearing clusters of spikelets) usually cylindrical in outline, 2 – 15 cm long, 1 – 2.5 cm wide, and can be purple, grey or yellowish. The spikelets are surrounded with many bristles. The inflorescence contains both male and female flowers, and seed is not only produced sexually, but also by apomixis – asexual reproduction by seeds produced from the maternal tissue of a flower. This results in plants that are clones of the mother plant. This is both an asset and a liability; the former because once a plant is found with good characteristics we can save the seed from it and it always breeds true, producing a very uniform variety. The liability is that the crossing of plants with good traits becomes a much more complicated process, as it must involve seeds produced sexually.

The seed is spread by attachment to humans and animals. Wind is also a major factor in seed dispersal, and the grass flourishes on roadsides where passing vehicles generate extra wind. The seeds can also be dispersed by water.


Photographs taken 2010, Picnic Bay
Page last updated 3rd November 2018