Fall in Love with Native Grasses

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
the coast.


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 Goldenrod

Purple Lovegrass and Goldenrod

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.

The Case for Goldenrod

The court of public opinion delivered its verdict long ago: goldenrod is just a weed. This beleaguered plant is blamed for seasonal allergies, condemned for it’s raggedy appearance and accused of possessing an aggressive habit. True goldenrods are all members of the Solidago genus. What many people don’t realize is that this is a genus of numerous species, many of which have garden-positive traits that make them both attractive and valuable in your garden.

Goldenrods are erroneously blamed for seasonal allergies because their showy blooms appear right as the real culprit, giant ragweed, begins to disperse its small grains of pollen into the air. Goldenrod pollen is not airborne; it relies on insect pollinators to move it from plant to plant. This pollen does not affect your sensitive nose, and it is in fact an indispensable food source in fall for hungry bees, butterflies and other pollinators.

At the mention of goldenrod, what likely comes to mind is the common Canada goldenrod, Solidago canadensis. This species thrives in urban areas like vacant lots and roadsides, where its seeds quickly occupy disturbed soils. Despite it’s sometimes raggedy appearance and weedy reputation, each fall it offers up attractive golden plumes-rich with nectar and pollen.

There are several Solidago species however, that offer these valuable resources to pollinators while still maintaining an attractive appearance and good manners in the garden. I have included below descriptions of a few favorite goldenrod species that are just about to burst into bloom in my yard. They are well suited for the garden and will soon be abuzz with a myriad of butterflies and bees. I hope you will find some spots in your yard for these beautiful and beneficial native wildflowers.

  • Seaside GoldenrodSolidago sempervirens – salt-tolerant, adapts to many soils types and is tolerant of wet or dry conditions once established. Very showy stalks of blooms reach 3-6 feet tall. The plant forms a clump and will reseed, but not aggressively. Prefers full sun to part sun.
  • Sweet GoldenrodSolidago odora – pretty pyramidal clusters of yellow blooms atop stalks 3-4 foot tall. Grows in average garden soil and is adaptable to clayey soils. Anise-scented foliage makes a tasty tea. “Liberty Tea” was used by colonists after the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Clump grower, reseeds. Full to part sun.
  • Wand GoldenrodSolidago stricta – sends up tall, thin ‘wands’ 2-4 foot tall topped with bright, clear yellow blooms. Very easy to grow and adaptable to many soil types. Prefers full to part sun.
  • Downy GoldenrodSolidago petiolaris – one of the most uniform and compact goldenrods, forms a clump, which grows wider but is not agressive. Spikes of canary yellow flowers 2-4 feet tall. Average soil and water needs. Full sun.
  • Wreath GoldenrodSolidago caesia- arching branches of blooms on low, 2ft tall stalks. Reseeds and spreads by root, but not aggressive. Grows in full sun, but is also tolerant of dappled shade.

Herb Spotlight: Vietnamese cilantro

Vietnamese cilantro, also known as Vietnamese coriander, Cambodian mint or Rau Ram, makes an unusual addition to your herb garden. It’s native to Southeast Asia, where it's a very popular culinary ingredient. Vietnamese cilantro is not the same as the “regular” cilantro we are all so familiar with in Western cuisine. It has a very strong, smoky yet minty flavor and, because of its strength, should be used in quantities about half that of cilantro. The biggest benefit to growing Vietnamese cilantro over cilantro is its ability to beat our summer heat.

It’s a low, creeping plant that will spread into ground cover if given enough time. It can’t handle temperatures below freezing, but if grown in a pot and brought inside when there is a frost, it can last for many seasons. Plant grows best in bright morning sun and afternoon shade.

Keep the soil moist. If the plant stops producing new leaves in midseason, cut it back almost to the base to promote new growth. If it’s growing in a container, you might need to repot it into a bigger one—or divide it and replant in the same pot—a couple of times a season.

Prune herb, pull young leaves from stems, rinse, and dry. Store clean leaves, layered between slightly damp towels in the refrigerator. Soak any wilted leaves in ice water briefly to refresh them.

Vietnamese Dipping Sauce

This sauce can be used to brings the prefect amount of sour, sweet, salty, spicy and authenticity to your dish -- from omelets, to salad dressing or drizzled on a sandwich. This sauce brings the prefect amount of sour, sweet, salty spicy and authentic to your dish.

3 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons local
2 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 small clove garlic, finely minced
1 or 2 small Thai chiles, thinly sliced
1 handful fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
1 handful Vietnamese coriander leaves, finely chopped

Mix the lime juice, honey and 1/2 cup of water in a small bowl and stir. Taste and adjust the flavors if necessary to balance out the sweet and sour. Add the fish sauce, garlic and chiles. Taste again and adjust the flavors to your liking, balancing out the sour, sweet, salty and spicy. Cover and set aside at room temperature until needed, up to 24 hours. Just before serving, mix in the mint and Vietnamese cilantro.