Swaying gracefully in the gentlest breeze, native grasses seem to be the “free spirits” of plantdom. But, their looks are deceiving — they’re actually some of nature’s workhorses, providing food in the form of foliage and seeds; nesting places and nesting materials; and thick cover for wildlife to hide in. Group them in your butterfly garden; use them as a border to your property or lawn; plant them as background behind native perennials; or to flank your walkways, sidewalk, patio or driveway.
Native grasses originated on the Great Plains, which back then was a lush 170 million acres of grasses. The topsoil was the deepest recorded anywhere and home to bison, elk, deer, rabbits and other mammals, birds, butterflies and other insects. For thousands of years, the prairies withstood all that nature threw at them — fire, flood, drought, tornadoes. Then came humans. Within a single generation, all but about 4 percent of prairies had been wiped out — plowed under for farming and built upon by developers. Ninety-six percent of that precious wildlife habitat is gone, but we can put some of it back, if only in our own yards.
Featured here are our favorite native grasses. They offer benefits to wildlife and the environment, and their size is right for a city yard. Most native grasses don’t make a splash when planted singly, like the pretty hybrids sold in garden centers. And, they don’t provide cover when planted that way. So plant native grasses in masses. Allow them time to grow and fill their bedding area — they’ll show off their own special, wildly casual beauty, adding complexity and interest to your yard, while helping wildlife.
BUFFALOGRASS (Bouteloua dactyloides), or Buffalo Grass
Attractive, fine bladed, soft, easy to maintain, exceptionally heat and cold tolerant, handles drought and clay soil — what’s not to like about Buffalograss! A sod-forming grass that grows about 5 inches tall in northern areas and to 12 inches in southern regions, plant it in front of other native grasses. Don’t mow it, so that it will produce seed heads.
Several cultivars offer greater density and longer-lasting seasonal color. One of them, called “Stampede,” gets only 4 inches tall. Buffalograss needs only 1-1/2 inches of water per month to stay green, otherwise it goes dormant. If you mix it with Blue Grama (see below), the most drought-tolerant of all grasses, you’ll be assured of solid color through the dry season. Full sun. Moisture: doesn’t like wet soil or sandy soil.
Green Skippers (Hesperia viridis), shown above, will use it as a host plant for their caterpillars. It also can be used as a pretty, environmentally friendly turfgrass in other areas of your yard. Zones: all. (photos clockwise from top-left: Colorado Art Studio Flickr – cc by-nc-nd 2.0; Zoya Akulova / EOL – cc by-nc 3.0; Jim P. Brock / EOL – cc by-nc-sa 3.0)
BLUE GRAMA (Bouteloua gracilis)
Blue Grama Grass makes up 75 percent or more of the grasses in tallgrass prairies. It forms dense mounds with foliage that grows to only about 4 to 6 inches tall. It works well at the front edge of other grasses or position it in front of dark-colored perennials that will help show off its interesting seed heads that grow about 15 inches tall and resemble eyelashes. It can also be used as a turfgrass mixed with Buffalograss. (If your area of short native grasses won’t be mowed through the summer, sprinkle in some delicate nectar-producing wildflowers, too.) Blooms July to October. The most drought-tolerant of all native grasses, it can grow in any soil that isn’t highly organic and has good drainage. Full sun. Moisture: dry. Zones 5 to 9.
Several skipper species, including the Rhesus Skipper (Polites rhesus) shown above, use it as a host plant for their caterpillars. Songbirds eat its seeds and deer and rabbits eat its foliage.photos (photos clockwise from top-left: S.E. Wilco / Wiki – cc by-sa 3.0; Robert Sivinski / EOL – cc by-nc 3.0; Bill Bouton / EOL – cc by-sa 3.0)
LITTLE BLUESTEM (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Little Bluestem, 2 to 3 feet tall, is a bunchgrass that makes a nice companion to Big Bluestem, Indiangrass and Switchgrass. Blue-green summer foliage changes to a bronze or red color in fall, which may linger through winter. Blooms August to October. Prefers sun and well-drained soil. Zones 3-10.
Its narrow blades are food for larvae of butterflies, such as the Dusted skipper (Atrytonopsis hianna), shown above, and its seeds provide food for birds through the winter. (photos L-R: Chhe / Wiki – PD; Drew Avery / Flickr – cc by 2.0; Dusted Skipper by Bill Bouton / EOL – 3.0 cc by-sa 3.0
SEA OATS (Chasmanthium latifolium), also called Indian Wood Oats, Wild Oats, River Oats, Flathead Oats, Upland Oats, Upland Sea Oats
This is one of the most popular native grasses for an urban yard. Growing 2 to 4 feet tall, the foliage is blue-green in spring and turns a vivid green by early summer, then translucent green seed heads turn to ivory in mid-summer. It’s a larval host for the Bronzed Roadside Skipper (Amblyscirtes aenus) and birds eat its seeds. Plant it where you won’t mind it spreading, as it readily re-seeds and produces deep, hard-to-pull roots. Blooms June to September. Sun to part shade. Tolerates difficult growing conditions, such as clay and rock subsoil and poor drainage. Zones 6-11. (It’s unlawful to collect Sea Oats seeds or plants from the wild in some states, but seeds can be purchased legally and are available on the internet.) (photos clockwise from top-left: Steven J. Baskauf / EOL – cc by-nc-sa 3.0; Anne McCormack / Flickr – cc by-nc-2.0; Tom Murray / BugGuide – cc by-nd-nc 1.0)
SWITCHGRASS (Panicum virgatum), also called Wand Panic Grass
Many people use this perennial bunchgrass as an ornamental grass, but its greatest importance is as dense cover and food for wildlife. Adaptable to all soil types, and weather extremes. 3 to 6 feet tall. Blooms August to September and the stems are good at standing up over the winter. Full sun. Moisture: dry to moist. Zones 3-10.
It’s a larval host for the Delaware Skipper (Anatrytone logan) shown above, as well as other skippers. (photos clockwise from top-left: L-R: Tom Potterfield / Flickr – cc by-nc-sa 2.0; James H. Miller & Ted Bodner / Bugwood – cc by 3.0; Bill Berthet / EOL – cc by-nc 3.0)
BOTTLEBRUSH GRASS (Elymus hystrix), also called Eastern Bottlebrush
Bottlebrush Grass is named for its long floral seed heads that resemble a bottle brush. It’s shade tolerant — put it on the shady side of your garden or under trees for texture and interest. Grows 30 to 60 inches tall. Soil: sand, loam. Moisture: dry, medium. Zones 3-7.
Rabbits love to browse its leaves and Northern Pearly Eye Butterflies (Lethe anthedon), shown above, use it as a host plant for their caterpillars. photos clockwise from top-left: Steve R. Turner, Missouri Botanical Garden / EOL – cc by-nc-sa 3.0; Erin Faulkner / EOL – cc by-nc 3.0; Howell C. Curtis / EOL – cc by-nc-sa-3.0)
INDIANGRASS (Sorghastrum nutans), also called Yellow Indian Grass
Indiangrass is a perennial bunchgrass with blue-green blades that stay low to the ground most of the year and then grow 5 to 7 feet tall before blooming in August to September. Soft, plume-like, orange to deep-purple seed heads have a somewhat metallic sheen. Looks best when planted in masses. Combine it with Little Bluestem and wildflowers for a pretty fall combination. Full sun. Tolerates most soil types. Moisture: dry to moist. Zones 3-9.
Indiangrass is appreciated by wildlife for cover, birds and small mammals eat its seeds, and the Pepper-and-Salt Skipper (Amblyscirtes hegon), shown above, uses it as a larval host. (photos clockwise from top-left: Tom Potterfield / Flickr – cc by-nc-sa 2.0; Tom Potterfield / Flickr – cc by-nc-sa 2.0; Jeffrey Pippen / EOL – cc by-nc-sa 3.0)
BIG BLUESTEM (Andropogon gerardii), also called Turkeyfoot
Big Bluestem is the most widely distributed of all prairie grasses. A tall grass with seed heads that can reach 8 to 10 feet high. Lush and green in summer, stems change to red-bronze with the first frost. Blooms August to October. The seed heads branch into three parts, looking something like a turkey’s foot. Full sun. Any soil type. Drought tolerant, benefits from some moisture, but not too much or it begins to droop. State grass of Illinois and Missouri.
It provides good cover for nesting and is a larval host for the Dotted Skipper (Hesperia attalus), shown above, and other skippers. photos clockwise from top-left: T. Voekler / Wiki – cc by-sa 3.0; Zoya Akulova / EOL – PD; Bill Bouton /EOL – cc by-nc-sa 3.0)