Native grasses, sedges and rushes can add structure and beauty to your garden all year long while also playing an important role in supporting our local wildlife. Join Extension Master Gardener Elaine Mills to explore how to use these plants in your home landscape and how to maintain them.
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Native Grasses, Sedges and Rushes for the Home Garden
Locally Native Sedges
- Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica)
- Appalachian Sedge (Carex appalachica)
- Plantain-leaved Sedge (Carex plantaginea)
- Eastern Woodland Sedge (Carex blanda)
- Gray’s Sedge (Carex grayi)
Locally Native Rush
- Common/Soft Rush (Juncus effusus)
Locally Native Grasses
Cool Season Grasses
- Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)
- Wavy Hair Grass (Deschampsia flexuosa)
- Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix)
Warm Season Grasses
- Purple Love Grass (Eragrostis spectabilis)
- Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris)
- Purpletop (Tridens flavus)
- Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
- Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
- Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Additional Native Grasses
- Brown, Lauren and Ted Elliman. 2020. Grasses, Sedges, Rushes. Yale University Press.
- Christopher, Thomas, ed. 2011. “New American Meadow Garden” [includes information on “no-mow” lawns]. Chapter 3 in New American Landscape. Timber Press.
- Daniels, Stevie. December 31, 2001. Planting a Native Grass Lawn Step by Step. Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Gardening How-to Articles.
- Darke, Rick. 2007 Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes. Timber Press.
- Wildlife Friendly Landscapes. NC State Extension.
- Greenlee, John. 2009. The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn. Timber Press.
- Greenlee, John. December 31, 2001. Sedge Lawns: A Sustainable, Low-Maintenance Alternative to Grass. Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Gardening How-to Articles.
- Native Plants Database. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
- Ondra, Nancy J. 2002. Grasses: Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design. Storey Publishing.
- Plant NOVA Natives. [includes list of sources].
- Ranier, Thomas. February 8, 2011. Warm Season vs Cool Season Grasses: Understanding the Distinction Will Improve Your Designs. Grounded Design blog.
- Ranier, Thomas. January 12, 2012. Perennials to Interplant in Grasses. Grounded Design blog.
- Tried & True Native Plants for the Mid-Atlantic: Grasses & Sedges
2022 Addendum: Additional Details and Answers to Chat Questions
Recorded October 2022
The native plants described during the presentation are native to Arlington County and the City of Alexandria in Northern Virginia, and most of them are also indigenous to the Mid-Atlantic.
- Viewers from Northern Virginia can refer to the Plant NoVA Natives website for a list of nearby native-only sellers and local native plant sales. Most vendors sell potted plants in various sizes, but some may sell seeds or plugs.
- Viewers from other areas of Virginia will want to look for regional native plant guides. Links to free PDF versions of these guides can be found on the website for the Virginia Native Plant Society.
- Viewers watching from other states may wish to consult county-level maps on the USDA Plants Database to confirm the presence of the plants in their regions. Local Extension offices should also be able to provide information on locally native species, and state native plant societies may offer native plants for sale or exchange.
With regard to grasses suited to a Maryland property east of Mount Vernon, VA with sandy soil and orange-colored soil beneath:
- All of the grasses discussed are native to both the Piedmont and Coastal Plain regions.
- Purple Lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis) and Sea Oats (Uniola paniculata) are especially suited to sandy soil.
- Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) prefers loam soil, but all of the others can grow in clay, loam, or sand. The deep root systems of the warm-season grasses should help them penetrate hard soil.
In response to a question about the best grasses to use over a septic field:
- The general advice is to choose drought-tolerant, low-maintenance plants, so native warm-season grasses would be suited to this use.
- My research suggests that several of the grasses and sedges I mentioned are suitable.
- For information on recommended species and details on planting see
- Native Plants in Virginia for over a Septic Field, Loudoun Wildlife.
- “Landscaping Over Septic Systems with Native Plants” (HENV-15-W), Perdue University Extension
- “Landscaping Over Septic Drain Fields” (Factsheet HGIC 1726), Clemson Cooperative Extension.
As I mentioned in the introduction of the talk, one of the advantages of native grasses is that they do not require any fertilization. In fact, some species are naturally found in dry prairies and will have more of tendency to flop if planted in overly rich garden soil.
As explained in the response to the first question above, most of the grasses described in the talk (for either sun or shade) can grow in clay soil. The exceptions are Sea Oats, which grows in coastal dunes; Purple Lovegrass, which prefers sandy, gravelly soil; and Bottlebrush Grass, which prefers loam.
In reply to concerns about grasses attracting snakes, see this comment from PennState Extension:
“Snakes may find a hospitable habitat in either a traditional or a naturally landscaped yard if prey species, water sources, sunny areas for basking, and shelter are present. Snakes may find shelter under outbuildings, in rock walls, or in log piles; they are valuable neighbors because they eat true pests, such as mice, harmful insects, and slugs.” In Virginia, the two types of venomous snakes (rattlesnakes and cottonmouth) are found either in southeastern or western counties.
On the question of when to sow seed for native grasses:
- Kansas State Extension advises that fall or “dormant” seeding from December through February can work for native grasses.
- Broadcasting seed over frozen soil following the first killing frost will allow natural stratification to occur. Natural changes in the seed and seed coat will enhance germination.
- Some cool-season grasses may establish during the winter, but the warm-season species will not germinate until the spring when soil temperatures exceed 60 degrees F.
- Some seed may be lost to decay or wildlife consumption, and establishment may be hindered by competition from winter annual weeds.
- Mulching will protect both the seed and the soil, retaining moisture.
- Perdue University Extension also recommends “frost seeding” from January through March to mimic what would occur through natural reseeding. Their Got Nature? blog explains details of the process.
- University of Missouri Extension alerts that the seed of warm-season grasses may be slow to establish because it is hard to handle, and seedlings do not compete well with weeds.
Relating to concerns about the effect of heavy rain on grasses:
- Storm events can be troublesome because of the impact of the rain (25 mph) on the plants themselves, erosion around the roots, and the amount of water that saturates the soil.
- Some cultivars, such as ‘Standing Ovation’ a naturally occurring mutation of Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) found in Landenburg, PA, tend to retain a more upright and rigid habit.
- Situating grasses in full sun and on a slope will help their foliage dry more quickly and excess rain to flow away from their roots.
- If certain parts of a home landscape tend to collect more moisture, consider installing a rain garden with sedges at the inflow points, Common Rush (Juncus effusus) and moisture-loving perennials at the center, and warm-season grasses on the surrounding sloped area.
- Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) definitely requires well-drained soil. It will even do well in rocky, sandy soil that mimics conditions in its natural habitat. Sogginess aggravated by over-mulching in winter can damage or kill the grass.
In response to a request for more information on dividing grasses:
- Periodic dividing of native grasses can be beneficial both for increasing the number of plants to cover a wider area and to renew older clumps. If you plan to divide them, it is easier to do this every few years rather than waiting until basal clumps are very large.
- Grasses should be divided during their period of active growth since they won’t establish good root systems if transplanted during dormancy. Cool-season grasses (see handout for specific species) should be divided and transplanted in the early spring as they begin their new growth. Warm-season species (see list) can be divided in late spring or early summer but before they begin flowering.
- The division of smaller grasses is similar to the process for perennials.
- Dig up the grass and use your hands, a knife (I mentioned the Hori Hori), or a trowel to pull or cut the clump into several pieces.
- Make sure each piece has some healthy roots.
- Replant the sections before the roots have a chance to dry out and water well.
- Larger grasses can be divided in several ways.
- Dig the entire clump out using a sharp shovel or even a crow bar and then divide it with the shovel, an axe, or a hatchet driven through the root ball. Then replant the original clump and the pieces promptly.
- Alternately, the clump can be left in the ground and divided into pieces with the edge of a shovel or a pair of garden forks. It may be easiest to remove chunks from around the edge of large clumps, making sure they have enough healthy roots. The individual pieces can be pried out of the ground, replanted, and watered thoroughly.
- New plant sections should be watered regularly until they become established.
- Planting grass plugs initially, rather than quart- or gallon-size plants, may be the fastest and most economical way to cover a large area.
Regarding a request for low-maintenance short grasses to plant on an eroding steep slope with southern exposure:
- After considering several of the warm-season grasses, my recommendation would be Purple Lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis).
- It grows in full sun and poor soil, and, as a drought-tolerant species, it can take the heat of a southern exposure.
- At 18 inches to 2 ½ feet, it is the shortest of the species I described. Its airy flowers will be attractive, but then the seed heads will simply blow away.
- It competes well with weeds in disturbed fields.
- All of these factors will mean minimal care is involved.
- Most importantly, this tough native has vigorous, fibrous roots that can provide robust erosion control on roadsides and hillsides.
- Even though this species is drought-tolerant, new transplants should be well-watered until they are established.
Regarding comparisons of straight species grasses and cultivars:
- Studies by Dr. Doug Tallamy on woody plants have shown that changes of leaf color result in a change of the plant chemistry, making the foliage unusable by butterfly and moth caterpillars as a larval host plant. Modifications in the height of shrubs may have an effect on birds seeking shelter or fruit in plants of a certain dimension.
- Studies on herbaceous plants by both Dr. Annie White and Mt. Cuba indicate that straight species plants are generally preferred for pollinators. Changes in flower color and especially flower form are problematic because the plants may not be recognized or may even be rendered sterile by the reduction of reproductive parts. In certain cases, cultivars equaled or outperformed the species.
- See my discussion of this topic in an article, “Making Wise Plant Choices, Part 3: Cultivars,” on the MGNV website.
- The Grow Native! website has numerous helpful links on research and observational studies under the topic “Natives, Cultivars, and ‘Nativars’.” They cite five scholarly papers on research comparing native grasses and cultivars in prairie plantings, but the focus of the studies appears to have been on root dynamics and suitability for ecological restoration rather than on support for wildlife.
- Grasses are wind-pollinated, so modifications to the inflorescences would not have an impact on collection of pollen by insects. If the size of stems is retained, I would imagine they could still be used by any stem-nesting bees. Perhaps a modification to the color of the foliage would have an impact on a plant’s use as a larval host for Lepidoptera. In short, while I personally tend to choose straight species over cultivars, I don’t think the effect of modifications appears to be as great for grasses as for other types of plants.
Given the limits of the presentation, I did not have time to describe all of the native grasses, sedges, and rushes native to the Mid-Atlantic. One participant inquired about Limestone Meadow Sedge.
- The native range for this sedge (Carex granularis) includes eastern Canada, and, in the U.S., runs principally from Maine to Virginia, reaching into some of the upper midwestern states with scattered populations in the Southeast.
- The Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora indicates that it is frequent in the mountains but infrequent in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain. Its natural habitat includes open areas, including floodplain forests, swamps, wet meadows. Its tolerance for alkaline soils leads to “limestone” in the common name.
- The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center describes it as having pale leaves with a waxy bloom (like that on grapes) that gives them a blue-green or gray-green cast. The basal leaves are arranged in a rosette. The fruit looks like a small corncob.
- The Illinois Wildflowers website states that it grows in full to partial sun and that its flower stalks can reach 2 feet. The caterpillars of various butterflies, skippers, and moths feed on the foliage.
A participant requested information on propagation of rushes:
- Divide rushes by cutting back dead foliage and old flower stems from mid-spring to early summer.
- Dig under the soil to locate rhizomes and use a small saw to cut through them and divide the plant clump into sections.
- Then dig to lift the individual sections from the soil and replant, spreading the roots outward. Cover roots with soil and a light cover of mulch and water well.
2020 Addendum: Additional Details and Answers to Chat Questions
Recorded August 2020
The native plants described during the main portion of the presentation are native to Arlington County and the City of Alexandria in Northern Virginia, and most of them are also indigenous to the Mid-Atlantic.
- Viewers from other areas of Virginia will want to look for regional native plant guides. Links to free PDF versions of these guides can be found on the website for the Virginia Native Plant Society at
- Viewers watching from other states may wish to consult county-level maps in the USDA Plant Database to confirm the presence of the plants in their regions. Local Extension offices should also be able to provide information on locally native species.
Questions were raised about the unwanted spread of some of the plants discussed. As I pointed out, none of the grasses or sedges in the talk are considered invasive. The term “invasive” is reserved for non-native plants which are introduced into an ecosystem and that spread uncontrollably and cause harm to the environment. (Presidential Executive Order 13112, February 1999).
River Oats/Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), one of the cool-season grasses, is the only plant I consider aggressive as it can spread by both self-seeding and rhizomes. While Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix), another cool-season grass, can spread through self-seeding, it’s roots are short and much less tenacious, and I find it easy to pull if it appears outside the areas where I would like it to grow. The sedges generally spread within a limited area via rhizomes, and I find them equally easy to control.
The two sedge species I mentioned during the presentation as replacements for invasive Liriope were Appalachian Sedge (Carex appalachica), which has wide, dense tufts of delicate, grass-like foliage, and Plaintain-leaved Sedge (Carex plantaginea), which has wide, strap-like leaves and measures around 18” across.
To learn about other native plants that can replace invasive ground covers, plan to attend the online public education class on “Native Ground Covers for Sun and Shade” (scheduled for September 25) or watch the recording when it is uploaded to the mgnv.org website at the end of September.
I regret the omission of Path Rush (Juncus tenuis), also known as Slender or Poverty Rush, from my list of recommended plants. I had not seen it in local gardens and have not had personal experience growing it. This cool-season plant is native throughout the United States. It is considerably shorter than Soft Rush at 4-12” tall and has dense clumps of cylindrical stems. Typical growing conditions are full sun to light shade in moist to wet soil. It does well in heavy clay soil and tolerates drought, flooding, moderate salinity, and gets its common name because it can handle compacted soil and a moderate amount of foot traffic.
Poverty Oatgrass (Danthonia spicata) was mentioned by several listeners as a grass species that might tolerate minor foot traffic. It is a clump-forming cool-season grass with twisted, wiry, tufted foliage. It prefers full sun to light shade, dry conditions, and sterile, rocky soil, and doesn’t tolerate competition from taller ground vegetation. Some online sites propose it as a substitute for turf grass, and state of Maryland is studying its possible use as a roadside grass.
Regarding moisture tolerance of Buffalo Grass (Buchloe dactyloides), the grass species that is currently in use as a turf replacement, my further research indicates that it would not do well in moist to wet conditions. The plants are intolerant of lots of moisture and generally do not perform well in areas with high rainfall.
A question was raised about the salt tolerance of Gray’s Sedge (Carex grayi), which I described as tolerant of seasonal flooding. My research indicates that it is moderately tolerant of salt. Our agent lists these species as tolerant of occasional inundation by a tidal creek: Bouteloua curtipendula, Bouteloua gracilis, Deschampsia cespitosa, Sporobolus heterolepis, Eragrostis spectabilis, and Schizachyrium scoparium. Several online sources describe these additional native species as tolerant of salt (either in coastal environments or along roadsides): River Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), Soft Rush (Juncus effusus), Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans). In the talk, I described Purpletop (Tridens flavus) as being salt-tolerant.
In response to a chat question regarding grasses for erosion on slopes, I would suggest Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans), or Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). I have seen Switchgrass used extensively on the sloping outside edges of rain gardens and have photographed the other two species on sizeable meadow slopes.
In response to a chat question on grasses for pond edges, I would suggest River Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) for shadier locations, noting the possibility of its aggressive spread [The spreading rhizomes may be just what you want!], or Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), which has very deep roots, in sunnier locations.
One participant inquired about variations in color of Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). Some of that may be attributable to genetic variation within the straight species. Some breeders have selected for certain colors in named cultivars. For example, ‘Jazz’ has silvery blue foliage that turns mauve purple in the fall; ‘Prairie Blues’ has blue-gray foliage that turns red-orange in the fall.
Another participant asked about ‘White Cloud.’ That is a cultivar of Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) with which I was previously unfamiliar. It has the same fine-textured foliage, but its showy seed heads are white. It apparently has a more upright shape, grows a bit taller, and blooms shortly after Pink Muhly Grass. It can be grown in Zones 7 to 10, and its care is the same as for the straight species.
One participant asked about starting plants from seed or plugs. I have personally always purchased small plants from native nurseries. Plugs would be another option for starting to cover large areas in an economical manner, if you’re willing to wait for them to fill it and spread. I gather it would be difficult to start many of these plants from seed in the home garden.
Someone inquired whether early spring trimming of grasses might disturb bees and other insects that use them as larval hosts. Concern for native bees overwintering in the stems of grasses would only be an issue for the more robust grasses with larger circumference stems, such as Indian Grass and Switchgrass. One solution would be to cut the bottom of the stems to 4-6” high and to retain the upper part of the plant and place it upright in a holder, such as a tomato cage, until the season has advanced. Or you could carefully lay the stems down horizontally in an out-of-the-way garden location. The caterpillars of butterflies, skippers, and moths that would be using grass plants or sedges as larval hosts wouldn’t be feeding on them until the plants put out new green growth a little later in the season.
I did not mention plant care of rushes. The foliage of Juncus effusus is generally described as evergreen, and it retains its color all year long in warm winter climates. In cold areas, it turns yellow in the fall before browning up for the winter. In the early spring, any dead foliage and old flowering stems can be removed. This plant can be propagated by division from mid-spring to early summer.
A question was posed about native species to interplant with sedges. Some that I mentioned in the talk were shade-loving perennials, such as Blue-eyed Grass, Wild Geranium, Marginal Wood Fern, Alumroot, Wild Ginger, Foamflower, Dwarf Crested Iris, and Eastern Columbine.
Someone inquired about Nutsedge (Cyperus rotundus). This is a non-native species of sedge with an original range in Africa, southern and central Europe, and southern Asia. It is a tenacious, aggressive weed in this country, especially in lawns. Our agent commented: “There are selective herbicides that can control nut sedges in turf grass and planting beds. It WILL however also kill off desirable sedges.”
In response to a question about the use of landscape cloth to control weeds, I would say that information I have received from a local soil scientist advises against it. He suggests that this layer interferes with the normal flow of water and recommends using mulch instead.
Other locally native species recommended by participants:
- Eastern Narrow-leaved Sedge (Carex amphibola)
- Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus)
- Common Wood Reedgrass (Cinna arundaceae).