By Lilly Anderson-Messec
As fall approaches, the thrill I feel as the air cools is enhanced by my eagerness to experience the
visual feast of native grasses at their peak. The colors and textures in the crisp golden light are
not static, they undulate and sway with the wind, their graceful dance creating a whispered
symphony. Yet native grasses are one of the most unnoticed and undervalued plants, despite
being an important part of a balanced ecosystem and having many landscape uses. I’ve been
delighted to notice that native grasses are beginning to be used more in landscapes, but they are
typically only planted in mass and very few species are utilized. They are beautiful planted in
mass, but they are also an often overlooked asset for both formally landscaped yards and more
naturalized wildflower gardens.
I’ve found the addition of native grasses to visually bind together individual plants within a
flower garden, giving it a more complete look. In nature, native grasses mingle beautifully with
native wildflowers. They fill open areas around fall blooming wildflowers, forming a supporting
matrix for the tall flower spikes of blazingstars and goldenrods, and the arching branches of
native asters. Several have striking fall foliage and colorful seedheads that add visual interest
well into winter. Native grasses also provide food, nesting materials and habitat for birds and
other wildlife, and many are larval host plants for numerous butterfly and moth species as well.
There are a multitude of lovely native grasses, below I’ve described a few of my favorites.
Purpletop Grass (Tridens flavus)
The lime green fountains of foliage are a sight when lit up by the evening light in fall. The tight
clumps of grassy leaves grow only 2 to 3 feet tall, but in fall they produce multiple 5-foot- tall
stems topped with dangling clusters of purple-red seed heads. Purpletop grass is easy to grow; it
prefers full sun, but is not particular about soil and will grow in moist to dry conditions of many
types once established. It is also salt tolerant, which makes it a common sight along roadsides at
Yellow Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Tough and adaptable to many soil types, this stately grass produces 4 to 6-foot- tall golden-
yellow plumes in the fall that float above its striking blue green foliage. The plumes have tiny, bright yellow pollen sacs that stand out in the dark seed heads. In winter, the blue-green foliage mellows to a copper-tan color. Yellow Indian Grass is tolerant of an array of soil types, including heavy clay, but it always looks best in full sun.
Lopsided Indiangrass (Sorghastrum secundum)
This wispy bunchgrass has showy, 4 to 5-foot- tall arching flowers clusters that lean to one side, hence its name. The tawny, lopsided florets are highlighted by yellow anthers and tipped with long, twisted awns; the showy display lasts about 2 to 3 weeks. Usually found in flatwoods or underneath pine trees, these graceful grasses thrive in full sun to part shade and average to dry soils. Drought tolerant once established.
Purple Lovegrass and Elliott’s Lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis and Eragrostis elliottii)
These showy, clump-forming grasses are low-growing, only 1 to 2 feet tall, salt-tolerant,
adaptable to many soils, and can even withstand mowing. Purple lovegrass has bright green foliage that produce clouds of pink wispy blooms in fall. Its blooms have a similar appearance to the more commonly used pink Muhly grass, although the plant is much smaller and compact.
Elliott’s lovegrass sports lovely blue-green foliage that produces numerous wispy whitish tan,
occasionally pinkish, masses of blooms in fall. These plants look best in full to mostly sunny
spots, are drought tolerant once established, and are excellent additions to any landscape.
Chalky Bluestem (Andropogon virginicus var. glaucus)
One of my favorites for its year round color, this graceful species produces leaves and stems that
are brilliant bluish-white, forming tight clumps of short leaves in spring that grow 3 to 4 feet tall
by fall, when they are topped with spikes of short, dangling racemes. Their bluish-white foliage
is tinged with purple-red highlights in fall and create an interesting color contrast when planted
among other grasses or fall blooming perennials. This species looks best in full to part sun, is
salt-tolerant, and is easily grown in average to dry soils.
River Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)
With its unique and interesting seed heads, this adaptable native grass is very ornamental. Lime
green foliage produce arching stems, 2 to 3 feet tall, adorned with dangling seedheads in the
summer, eventually maturing to a golden bronze in the fall and winter. The bobbing flat
seedheads sway beautifully in the wind and make a lovely sound. The seedheads stay on the
stems well into winter and are a nice addition for dried flower arrangements. Unlike other
grasses I’ve mentioned here, River Oats can spread vigorously in the right conditions. In the wild this grass is found in the moist soil of shady wooded areas and along streams, but it also grows well in drier soils where it’s less likely to spread. It will grow in full sun too, but may need supplemental water in periods of drought. Cut off the seed heads in fall, if you want to prevent it from spreading.