Native Perennial Grasses for the Garden

For many years ornamental grasses from Asia and other countries became popular in American gardens. However, once people realized how invasive they are and difficult to remove, they have been banned from many gardens.  As a result, many lovely perennial native grasses are replacing the non-native varieties. Grasses bring superb texture and movement to a garden, with the side benefit of attracting wildlife.


If you are looking for a native grass that is at home in a rock garden, at the front of a border or as a ground cover, try blue gramm (Bouteloua gracilis).  It is a low growing, long-lived tufted perennial with fine textured gray-green leaves growing 6-12 inches high and wide. It is durable, drought tolerant, and is used effectively for erosion control.  In the garden, it can be used as a lawn substitute as it can be mowed, but, most often, it is placed for its gorgeous dainty flowers that are held horizontally like small little flags and can be enjoyed from summer through autumn.  The seeds are a favorite food for many birds, including finches, and it is a larval host for certain butterflies.


Another suggestion is the tufted hair grass (Deschampsia cespitosa). At its peak, this grass is like a huge puff of silvery panicles. The plants beautifully refract the late afternoon light. This versatile grass is often grown as an accent, or in groupings or masses in the shade garden.  The plants are one foot tall and will reach two feet when in bloom and seed. Indigenous to cool damp habitats, tufted hair grass blends well with ferns and sedges and thrives in a rain garden. The cultivar known as `Goldtau’ is often selected for its chartreuse yellow flower panicles, low compact habit, and long blooming period.


A dramatic choice would be pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris). When at its peak, this plant is magnificent. The airy, rosy red plumes create spectacular clouds from September through December. This easy-to-grow grass prefers sun but will tolerate partial shade. They will grow to be roughly two to three feet wide and tall.  It is native to prairies, pine barrens, and open woodlands from Massachusetts to Kansas and grow well from Florida to Texas.  Pink muhly grass attracts lady beetles, provides cover for birds and offers a secure place for butterflies to perch.


I recommend growing little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) if you want a vertical grass with fine texture and silvery blue upright leaves. In autumn, little Bluestem will turn a gorgeous orange, red, bronze with shining feathery flowers. Considered a medium sized grass, little bluestem foliage grows to two feet, and when in bloom during autumn and winter, it reaches three to four feet.  Its drought resistance and deep root system, make it an ideal grass for erosion control. If little bluestem is grown in rich soil with plenty of moisture, the plants may flop over and need staking. Best locations are in full sun with average soil.  These plants produce a large number of seeds providing high quality food for a diversity of birds such as orioles, waxwings, chickadees, juncos and finches. Little bluestem hosts several species of caterpillars and wood nymph butterflies. There are many selections available.  One of the most popular is `The Blues’ which is loved for its deep blue foliage and rich purple and burgundy fall color.


Sedges (Carex sp.) are a distinctive, hardy and adaptable group of grasses that offer a trove of textures and colors. Many are evergreen which adds beauty and value to the winter garden. They provide shelter and food for beneficial insects and birds. White tinged sedge (Carex albicans) is a native that makes a lovely ground cover, growing well in shade or partial shade. Plants form graceful clumps growing twelve to fifteen inches tall with narrow fine-textured leaves. In most winters these plants are evergreen and it is a great plant for dry shady situations, for erosion control, and can be used as a lawn substitute.


Native grasses are versatile and beneficial.  Use them to fill a spot where little else will grow – in dry shade, along a garden walk, on a slope, in a rain garden, as an erosion preventative, or to provide multiple reasons for wildlife and birds to visit your garden.  Whatever your need, you will find that native grasses have much to offer as a functional, reliable, beautiful, and low-maintenance addition to your garden.