Prairie Grasses I’m Dreaming Of

People say sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees.  It’s even more true that you can’t see the prairie for the grasses.  But we really should see those grasses.  Ornamental grasses are gaining respect in landscaping, and truly, what is more beautiful than a sea of grass flowing under a current of breeze.

This week Susan Carpenter, Native Plant Gardener at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, pointed out 12 of the loveliest grasses among the prairie plantings, and I’m going to share my favorite six.

These are grasses that I want to make sure are growing in my restored prairie.  At this point, the first plants to make their appearance when the young pines were cut and the site was burned have been the forbs.  (For some reason, prairie flowers are called forbs – I’m sure I’ll know why someday.)  But grasses are starting to make their appearance, and I’ll be looking for these.

If you are landscaping with native grasses, fall is a great time to lift clumps, divide them into fourths and replant.  They have finished flowering but their  roots are still growing.   Here in Wisconsin the soil won’t freeze till December, so they have plenty of time to settle into their new spot.

Don’t you love to pull your fingers along the stalk of a ripe grass and fill your hand with seed?  That handful of tiny seed can become a drift of gorgeous grass wherever you would like.  I’m hoping to discover or introduce all of these and spread them into all the parts of my land where they are happy.  Leaning over to look closely at grasses really repays your effort.

BIG BLUE STEM  Andropogon gerardii Vitman

Big-bluestemThis was once the chief grass of the tallgrass prairie.  No wonder.  It is very tall – up to 10 feet.  And it’s also a bit of a bully, growing in tall, dense stands that shade out its neighbors while expanding through tough rhizomes, so I’m a little hesitant to deliberately loose it into my happy little acre and a half of flowers.  It sure is dramatic though, silhouetted against the sky.

SIDE OATS GRAMA GRASS Bouteloua curtipendula

Side-oats-grama-grassThis is a short prairie grass, and very sweet.  The small, oat-like seeds all dangle from one side of the stalk like lilies of the valley, except a grass.  Oh, don’t you wish that you could hear them ring?

PRAIRIE DROPSEED Sporobolus heterolepis

Prairie-DropseedThis grass forms a small, delicate clump with ethereal, fine textured seed heads.  It grows in little clumps that curve out gracefully to form a round tuft.  If you put your face into them you smell an earthy, almost cilantro fragrance.  I am told that snow will not flatten this grass, so it remains beautiful all winter.

CANADA RYE Elymus canadensis glaucifolius

Canada-RyeThis lovely plant reaches 5 feet and does well in partial shade.  The dense and drooping seed spikes are very dramatic.  It reminds me of wheat, but lounges over and to the side.   It’s seed do well in bare soil,  and will reseed easily,  I’m told.    It’s a cool season plant, along with Bottlebrush.  which means it starts it growth early in the spring, go dormant during the not dry months of summer and may start to grow again in the fall, if it gets enough rain.  Most prairie grasses are warm season grasses, which make their growth during the hot summer months and are better at conserving water.


Bottlebrush-grassThis airy seed stalked grass is already spreading into my savanna.  It is so dramatic because it grows in shady spots but catches the light vividly.  It always makes me smile.  Individual plants don’t live many years, by they readily re-seed themselves.

INDIAN GRASS Sorghastrum nutans

Indian-grassThis grass was so gorgeous in the early evening slanting sun.  It looked coppery with little yellow seedheads.   It is tasty for animals when it is young and popular as an ornamental grass.  I sure want to get some going in my prairie.

Short Grasses:  Side Oats grama grass and Prairie dropseed

Medium Grasses:  Canada Rye and Prairie dropseed

Tall Grasses:  Big Bluestem and Indian grass

Just for grins, here is a little poll.  Which of these are you most likely to add to your favorite spot?

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