Sunday, October 20, 2013

Native Grasses: Beginning Thoughts

The subject of native grasses is surprisingly complex. I have been writing this blog for 3 years now and still feel inadequately prepared to discuss the subject. So I thought perhaps that I could do this in stages and share what I know and then build on that in future topics.

Seed heads

The first important distinction is the concept of cool and warm season grasses. Warm season grasses grow actively in the warm months (summer) and then flower and set seed in the fall. In the winter they are dormant. Examples of warm season grasses in Georgia include big bluestem (Andropogon spp.), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides), broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus), and switchgrass (Panicum spp.). 

Warm season grasses are the ones you see now with flowers (yes, they have flowers) and fluffy seed heads and attractive stem colors.

Poverty oats grass (Danthonia spicata) is just starting
new growth now; curly old foliage is distinctive

Cool season grasses are actively growing in the cool months. From what I can find, these are not likely to be used as ornamental grasses and in high heat they can actually go dormant – not what most homeowners want. Lawn fescue is an example of a non-native cool season grass and poverty oats grass (Danthonia spicata) is an example of a native one.

For those with wet conditions and perennial streams and rivers, there are native grasses that thrive there as well.

Enormously important in restoration areas, native grasses are often overlooked when people are looking to add plants to their landscape. Instead, people are swayed by non-native ornamental grasses, some of which are quite big (Miscanthus) and some of which can actually be invasive (Imperata cylindrica). There is some documentation that Miscanthus is also invasive in some areas.

Pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) at a nature center
In recent years one coastal plain native grass has gotten a lot of attention: pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris). This grass is now commonly available in garden centers well outside it's native range and gets a lot of attention when planted in sweeping stands.

I think of it as one of the poster children for native plants. It helps raise awareness that native plants are beautiful in the landscape.

Other warm season native grasses are very attractive in the fall and pair nicely with fall perennials such as goldenrod (Solidago) and asters (Symphyotrichum). Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is surprisingly common on roadsides and fields near me. The flush of red color in the fall and the movement of the blades in the wind are very attractive characteristics.

Splitbeard bluestem with goldenrod

Wildlife benefits are always important. There are Lepidoptera (skippers and brushfoots) that use native grasses for host plants. In addition, the seeds are eaten by small birds and small mammals that become food for larger birds (hawks and owls).

Cultivars of some of the native warm season grasses are becoming more available. Schizachyrium scoparium 'The Blues' is getting a lot of attention but there are other choices. If you are looking for a larger grass, look to switchgrass and the cultivars of Panicum virgatum.


  1. This is great Ellen! I want to add more grasses to our landscape but am still learning about them. I am very careful to only add natives, especially since grasses reseed so prolifically and can really be invasive (something I think most gardeners don't think about when it comes to grasses).

  2. Trees Atlanta is creating areas of meadow along the Atlanta Beltline Arboretum with native grasses, sedges, and perennials. One thing to know is that it is expected to take three years for the native grasses to be fully established and choking out the weeds. The good news is that, unlike the turf grasses we see in parks, the meadows will only need mowing once per year, and no irrigation. You can see the results of year one efforts by taking a docent led tour of the Beltline East Side Trail. Or, get involved with Trees Atlanta to help with planting and learn all about native grasses with their experts.

  3. I use Danthonia spicata as a lawn substitute~love it.

  4. Thanks for an informative post. I'm trying to get some little bluestem started from seed (so far so good) and am interested in some of the other species you mention that grow in my state (Virginia).

    In your followup posts, might you be able to do a comparison/contrast between different native grasses regarding size, growth pattern, likelihood to spread? That kind of info would be quite useful when designing a garden, especially if one is aiming for a particular aesthetic.

  5. Are there any native grass nurseries in northern GA? I am looking for seeds or plugs as well as larger plants to start a small wildlife meadow in my large backyard.