By Elaine Mills, Extension Master Gardener
Photos: Elaine Mills
As summer’s annuals are beginning to fade and fall perennials are putting on their last show of bloom, native grasses take on a more prominent role in the natural landscape. Some of these members of the Poaceae family are well-suited to the home landscape, where they can bring structure, subtle color, texture, and even sound to garden beds well into the winter months.
A tall woodland grass that can be seen in the southern parking lot bed of our own Glencarlyn Library Community Garden is northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). This perennial grows in upright clumps with arching stems, bamboo-like leaves, and eye-catching oat-like seed heads that rustle and shimmer in the breeze. The green spikelets are beautiful in summer when backlit by the sun. They mature to a pink-copper, providing winter interest, and adding an attractive touch when used in dried flower arrangements.
A cool-season clumping grass that does well in a lightly shaded woodland setting is bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix). This 3-foot-tall plant has strap-like medium green leaves and bristly pale green flower heads that stand above the foliage in summer. The attractive spikelets mature to a straw color and persist into the fall. This grass is especially striking massed in front of trees, as you will find it at nearby Long Branch Nature Center.
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a drought-tolerant, warm-season bunch grass indigenous to prairies, open woods, and sand dunes, can provide either a vertical accent in a sunny garden or erosion control when planted en masse on a slope. The plant measures 2–4 feet tall, and the mature stems are ¼ inch wide with gray-green or blue-green coloration and lavender-tinged bases. In fall, the foliage develops a reddish or bronze color and the fluffy silver seed heads glisten in the late afternoon sun. Little bluestem maintains its upright growth habit through the winter, attracting birds to its seeds.
Once the dominant species of the American tallgrass prairie, switch grass (Panicum virgatum), is a clumping 3–6 foot tall warm-season grass noted for the open, airy appearance of its seed heads and the multi-season interest of its foliage. The plant’s stiff, columnar form makes it ideal as a structural backdrop at the rear of garden beds or as a screen. Its green leaves turn yellow in the fall and tan in the winter, and its pink-tinged flowering spikes persist from July to February, serving as a winter food source for birds. Many cultivars of switch grass are available with variations in height and foliage coloration.
A truly spectacular native fall-blooming grass species is muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris). This clumping warm-season 2–3 foot tall perennial has low tufts of glossy green arching blades that form a round crown. From September to November, the foliage is topped by airy, rosy-red plumes, which create a purplish haze at a distance and appear almost as children’s sparklers when seen close at hand. Muhly grass can be used either as a stunning accent plant in a mixed perennial border or in a mass planting at the edge of a lawn or meadow.
As the weather turns cooler, plan to look for some of these grasses at local demonstration gardens maintained by Master Gardeners and, perhaps, consider how they might fit into your own landscape plans.
Learn more about the care and maintenance of native grasses:
- Watch our public education class on Native Grasses and Sedges For The Home Garden.
- Check out the Grasses and Sedges section of our Tried & True Native Plant Selections for the Mid-Atlantic for more native grasses.