NOTE: This is not a true grass species but a member of the Iris family and has the characteristics of an Iris. But it called a grass and has grass-like leaves and fits in well with other native and ornamental grasses.
There are a number of species of Blue-eyed grass. This little jewel here, has the same leaf structure as the native blue-eyed grasses, S. montanum, and S. angustifolium. It only grows to about a foot in height and thus is more of a border specimen. It will flower from early June until frost if it has enough moisture. While the grass is drought tolerant and can be used in rock gardens, the flowers will be produced all season only if the plant has adequate moisture, otherwise you have early summer flowers only. This plant forms small clumps.
Because of its size, you need to be careful that it does not become hidden under over-growing foliage of taller plants. These plants have grown well with only half day sun. They do not have deep roots and thus transplant easily. The specimen pictured here was divided and transplanted the previous summer, so you can divide it any time up to mid-summer. Avoid late dividing so it can reestablish roots.
The root system divides easily to create multiple new plants from one older specimen. There is no fall color or winter interest. A little winter mulch is a good idea on newly established plants.
For information on Narrowleaf Blue-eyed Grass, S. angustifolium, Click HERE.
Blue Grama is a major warm season perennial tufted grass, growing 1 to 2-1/2 feet in height on slender stems (culms). The leaf blades are very narrow, up to 0.1 inch wide (1 to 3mm) and 1 to 6 inches (15cm) long. Most grow near the base of the plant. Blade veins are parallel and distinct.
The seed heads number 1 to 3 on a stem, are usually curved, about 3/4 to 3-1/4 inches long and densely flowered, but only on one side of seed head rachis with a single spikelet at the tip. These appear dense and comb-like with 40 to 130 spikelets per seed head. At maturity the seed heads curve resembling a human eyebrow, hence the alternate common name of 'Eyelash Grass'.
Blue Grama grows in bunches due to the fibrous root system producing small short underground tillers and by re-seeding. The species has good drought tolerance, will tolerate partial shade, but prefers mesic to dry conditions in full sun. Best to plant and divide in spring just before growth starts.
Blue Grama is a native prairie grass found in about 1/3 of the counties in Minnesota, principally in the western half of the state with a few scattered remnants in eastern counties such as Winona, Ramsey and Dakota (which are the only two metro counties known to have it). In North America is found mostly in the western 2/3rds of the continent, extending eastward around the Great Lakes and then the lower Canadian Provinces from Ontario westward.
The photo at right shows the seed heads approaching maturity, turning brown and beginning to curl into the 'eyelash' shape.
The photo below shows the seed head with its comb-like appearance of all spikelets on one side of the central rachis.
Blue Oat Grass is a cool season grass, meaning it will start growth early in the season before summer heat arrives. The foliage is usually a silvery blue color and of thin spiky leaves. It forms a nice clump with the foliage cascading outward as the photo shows. It works best in average to dry soils that are well drained. In heavy soil, don't over water. The foliage color is the point, it does produce a flower stem in Minnesota, but the plant must be well established and the conditions just right. However it does retain it's color year-round as the species name, sempervirens, (evergreen) indicates.
I have not tried dividing and transplanting. This specimen is four years old and looks great. Unlike most ornamental grasses, you do not cut back the old foliage in the spring. I made the mistake of doing that once and it was a pretty sorry looking plant until mid summer. A large number of the old blades will turn brown over winter, but in the spring, simple comb them out with your hand. You will need to do this several times as they loosen from the base, but the plant will retain it's vigor in this manner.
This plant is about 18" high and spreads about 3 feet. It grows slowly, but you need to give it some room for the foliage to spread. This plant does well with only morning sun. More Information on Blue Oat Grass.
Above: A four year old specimen of Blue Oat Grass - Helictotrichon sempervirens "Sapphire" (Helictotrichon = he-lik-toh-TRI-kon. In the 5th year it finally put out flower stems. Below: Examples of plants with flowering stems.
(muskingumensis = mus-kin-goo-MEN-sis)
Palm sedge in normally a plant that is native to moist areas as in marshes, river banks, etc, but I have found it to be a very nice landscape specimen no where near water. This particular plant gets about six hours of sun at the height of summer and does very well if I don't allow it to go more than a week without a drink, otherwise the foliage and flower stems will start to sprawl. This is a cool season plant, so growth takes off early with the flowering stems shooting up above the leaf blades by mid summer. The flower heads somewhat resemble oats or wheat.
The plant grows to 24 to 30 inches high to the tips of the seed heads, which are quite sturdy if the plant has enough moisture. It stays in a clump that grows outward slowly. As it needs sun, don't let the short leaf stems get hidden by another plant. It is not bothered by any pests. Divide it in early spring before growth starts.
The foliage will turn a nice yellow in the fall before becoming the brown color you see here. The seed heads will remain for some winter interest. Like most grasses, do not trim back the old foliage until spring. Mulch a new plant the first winter.
Northern Sea Oats is a warm season perennial clump forming grass, growing 2 to 4 feet high, usually no more than 3 feet, on round sturdy stems. While it has a rhizamatous root system, it behaves itself. The leaves are up to 7 inches long and quite wide for a grass - amost an inch. The flowering panicle is open with the branches nodding to drooping, making a nice landscape effect. The spikelets are also quite wide - about 1/2 inch with the florets arranged at a 45 degree angle - another interesting landscape condition. As the spikelets mature, they turn a nice reddish-bronze color, contrasting with the still green foliage. Plants should have partial to full sun in well drained soils that are not subject to extended dry conditions. This grass is not native to Minnesota but found slightly further south and all the way to the Gulf Coast and to the east coast. It grows well here. For variety, there is a cultivar available with variegated leaves called 'River Mist'. This cultivar tolerates more shade and does better in an open woodland setting.
More information on Northern Sea Oats
Below: A mature spikelet showing fall colors. Second photo is the River Mist Cultivar
Prairie Dropseed is a warm season perennial grass, growing 2 to 4 feet high, which forms large clumps. It is a plant typical of tall grass prairies. It can be used for ornamental purposes as the clumps have a fine round shape, the leaves form a drooping cascade beneath the fine flowering stems. It is particularly attractive in a massed grouping. Leaves are held ascending initially but are drooping in a cascade at flowering time. The flowering heads are held erect well above the leaf blades. The head is an open airy panicle, pyramidal in shape. The mature seed is a round to pear-shaped hard, smooth and shiny seed, light brown to gold in color. Clumps can be divided in early spring before growth starts.
Prairie Dropseed is native to a number of counties in Minnesota that are south and west of the Big Woods Belt.
Being a plant of the tall grass prairie, Prairie Dropseed grows best in sandy to loamy soils, with dry to moderate moisture conditions and full sun. Less that full sun will cause lodging of the flowering heads. Use it in a massed grouping to form a border for taller plants as shown in the photo above right at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
More information on Prairie Dropseed
Below: A young plant prior to flowering and a dry seedhead. Seeds have a spicy fragrance.
When you look at the photo of Purple Moorgrass, it belies it's species name which means "dark blue", but that refers to the color of the spikelets of the flower stem. The 'Variegata' variety has a bright yellow-green foliage that is particularly attractive when planted in a group of clumps. It is a cool season grass, with nice growth early in the season and the flower stems holding off till the mid summer heats lets up. I transplanted a number of these plants as they were being severely hampered by a large mound of Hakone grass. They do not have deep roots and transplant and divide easily. The first season after transplant they didn't look very vigorous but in the second season after transplanting they have filled out nicely (photo below).
The plant should get to 30 inches in height in full sun, but plants that get about 5 hours at most will never get that large, but they do grow nicely. The flower stems are thin and rise above the foliage with tiny yellow flowers. Some of the leaves will retain their color over winter so wait in the spring for growth to occur to see which leaves to trim off. They do not spread much and growth of the base mound of the clump seems to get a little taller each year.
Below: A second year transplant from a dying old plant of Purple moorgrass - Molina caerulea 'Variegata. Above right: Plants with seed heads.
This grass is a member of the Miscanthus genus which is composed of numerous species and varieties from which to chose for landscape interest. A number of them however, require quite specific selection criteria either due to size, behavior, invasiveness, etc. Red Flame Grass is an excellent selection for the home landscape
Fall and Winter Interest: The plant is quite hardy and gets its common name from the reddish-orange color of the foliage in the early fall. When we have a wet cool fall the color is never as bright but the tall upright stems and fluffy seed heads are quite nice and will provide good winter interest.
This is a warm season grass, so it gets going more slowly in the spring and the flower stems will show up near the end of summer. The flowers open at the top of a tall stem that rises from some of the leaf axils. When mature, the seed heads open as you see on the photos below. Leaf color in summer is a nice deep green. The mature seed head is a whitish-beige. This plant is 5-1/2 feet high, so it is not a border specimen.
It does not self seed, it grows in a nice clump but the clump can spread outward in good growing circumstances and you can have quite a large plant after four years of growth. Give them room. Clumps can be divided in early spring before growth starts.
The plant is not tolerant of drought, so it needs water about once a week for the best growth and full sun if possible but specimens with only about 6 hours of sun maximum in mid summer will grow nicely without full day sun - just don't grow them in the shade. With too little sun or water the stems will lodge. They can be divided and transplanted but be prepared for a chore. The clump is dense and the roots are deep. You will never dig deep enough to get all the roots, so go as deep as you can. My experience is that going down a foot is sufficient. You can cut through the clump with a knife or more likely your shovel. One large clump can provide a number of transplants. Be sure your planting hole has the soil loosened wider and deeper than the transplant will be set.
Like most ornamental grasses, do not cut back the old foliage until the following spring just before new growth starts.
Most of these grasses will benefit from a dose of liquid fertilizer during the growing season - even the type you use for turf such as Miracle-Grow will work fine - grasses need the higher nitrogen content.
The late fall foliage and seed heads of Red Flame Grass - Miscanthus 'Purpurascens'. Most stems will remain upright throughout the winter.
Hakone Grass - Hakonechloa macra"All Gold"
Hakone Grass has become my favorite grass among those presented in this article. As the name implies this is a native of the Hakone (Hah-koh-neh) area of Japan where it grows in moist mountainous woods. It is a warm season grass which means it begins growth slowly in the spring, waiting for the warm weather of Summer to really take off. Hakonechloa (hah-koh-neh-KLOH-ah) is even a little slower than most warm season grasses. We once thought the plants were dying out before we came to realize that it takes a while in the Spring for those first green shoots to come up.
By Summer the plants are really growing. The foliage is soft with some yellowish tinges and becomes weeping as you can see above as it grows and grows, but it never lodges - the stems hold up nicely even after a heavy rain.
In late Summer the flower heads come out and are more yellowish than greenish. They appear like soft brushes and have a weeping appearance just like the stems. In October the color begins to change taking on a golden color and if the Autumn is just right for temperature and the snow holds off you can get the almost orange color shown in the photo. The gold coloration always comes but in 2009 the Autumn was just right for the darker colors to come out.
The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum grew their experimental plot of Hakonechloa in shade and light to heavy shade is recommended for the grass, however, with the "All Gold" variety I have found that it needs some sun. A plant in light shade all day does not do well. This group of plants gets about 4 to 5 hours of direct sunlight on a summer day. Less in fall.
This planting consists of only six plants. In 5 summers it reached 12 feet wide. Each year it was more beautiful. The plants are spaced about 1-1/2 feet apart and as shown, they lean outward toward the open space. The base clump does not grow outward very rapidly and the inside of the clump does not seem to die off as some grass clumps will do. The height is about 18 inches. Like most ornamental grasses, do not cut off the old growth until the following spring. The grass expert at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum questioned whether Hakonechloa was hardy enough for our area, but it certainly seems to be. Young plants should certainly be mulched the first few winters. Clumps can be divided in early spring before growth starts.
In the photos above right we have a progression from bottom to top of early September, early November and early December.
This is the first selection of the Reed Grasses to discuss. Unlike those discussed below, this is a warm season grass. It starts slowly during the cooler spring months and at 3 to 4 feet of height, it grows about a foot shorter than the others. The cool season reed grasses flower in early summer, and while I would not completely agree with the term "Fall Blooming" it is certainly much later in Summer when it blooms. Ah those blooms - a feathery light purple tinge that a photo cannot do justice to. The plant turns color in autumn with fine seed heads to keep winter interest. Grows well in average soils.
Calamagrostis brachytricha is not as sturdy of stem as its cool season cousins such as the 'Karl Foerster' so it may tend to lodge. I grow it nestled in between some of the sturdier species and then have some lower height perennials in front. Like most of the ornamental grasses, do not trim the old stems until the following spring and a little winter mulch the first two years is a good idea. (Calamagrostis brachytricha = kal-ah-mah-GROS-tis BRAK-ee-trik-ah). Clumps can be divided in early spring before growth starts.
Feather Reed Grass, Calamagrostis xacutiflora (kal-ah-mah-GROS-tis hybrid ah-KYOO-tih-flor-ah), is a cool season grass, meaning it begins growth in the cool days of early spring and will flower in early summer. These grasses then may stop growing until the cooler days of autumn arrive, but by the time they enter full summer, they have a full mound of green foliage, tall flower heads, and seeds maturing. This type of plant will therefore, fill in the landscape area quickly with the contrasting colors of green foliage and brown upright flower stems. This characteristic has made them a favorite of landscape people and you will see this grass in use in numerous ways from mass plantings to a single clumps.
There are three varieties that have succeeded over the years in the growing-tests at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. All of these do best in full sun but must have at least 5 hours per day or the plants don’t grow well and will have very few flower stalks.
‘Karl Foerster’ (photos below) is the variety you will see most. It is showy with the contrasting green and brown, grows 4 to 5 feet high and grows rapidly. If you are planting a number of clumps, give each one about 1-1/2 feet center to center. The flowers are actually pink, but they are very small and do not last long. Seed heads last through winter. Best of the 3 varieties described here.
'Overdam’ (Photo at right) is a variegated variety with green and white striped foliage. It grows to 3 to 4 feet in height and has flower heads that are lighter in texture and color than ‘Karl Foerster’.
‘Avalanche’ is the third variety. It is also variegated with wider leaves and stiffer flower stems that are 3 to 4 feet high.
In all three varieties, once autumn arrives, the foliage clump settles down a bit and you see more of the upright stems. They do well in average soils and may have to be divided periodically. If so, remember they have deep roots so dig down as far as you can - at least a foot - and be prepared for a little lifting to get that clump out of the ground. Clumps can be divided in early spring before growth starts. They do transplant well however and by the second year after transplanting the shock will be worn off. Be sure your new planting hole has the soil loosened wider and deeper then the plant you are setting. Like all these grasses, old stems and leaves should be cut off only the following spring. Japanese beetles seem to like reed grasses and switch grasses but seem to do little harm. Pick them off when you see them.
Below - Left and center: 'Karl Foerster' in late June with flower stems well developed; the heads then turn brown with seed and persist through the remainder of the year, providing bird food during the winter. These plants illustrated are first year plantings from one gallon pots. Below Right: 'Overdam'. Above in mid-Summer with flower stems well developed.
I first planted this variety in 2007 and had to move them in the spring of 2008. These can become large - definitely a background plant, but quite interesting. The stems are quite stiff and the leaves stiff. This is a warm season grass, so growth is slow in the spring. I can give them about five hours a day of sunlight and they probably should have more, as the flower stems only emerge in September and the seed head unfolds later, but if the weather is good you will have some magnificent flower heads.
“Graziella” means graceful, and the seed heads are definitely that - very showy with good contrasting color between the stem and seed head. In full sun, they would definitely mature a little earlier. This plant needs space. The foliage on a plant with a one foot diameter clump will spread six feet at the top - it somewhat resembles a fountain - contrast that with the ‘Northwind’ Switchgrass which is almost straight upright.
Plant them where you want them because moving them is a chore. They will tend to grow outward from the center of the clump and the center may not show growth as the years go by, however, the plant is expected to live for 5 to 10 years, but if you live in USDA hardiness zone 3, you should mulch these plants each winter as Zone 4 is preferred. Always winter mulch a new plant or a transplant. Cut the old stems only in the spring of the following year. Clumps can be divided in early spring before growth starts.
Above: The graceful seed heads of M. s. 'Graziella' in early winter and early September.
Plant only named cultivars. The species sinensis is aggressive, invasive and will self-seed. The Landscape Arboretum has grown and tested almost 50 cultivars of M. sinensis. Not all of those even are acceptable. Other good examples are ‘Ferner Osten’ (far east), ‘Juli’ (July), 'Kline Fontaene’ (Little Fountain), ‘Silberfeder’ (Silver Feather), and for hardiness zone 3 especially - ‘Malepartus’ and 'Silberpfeil’ (Silver Arrow). There are others tested that are more showy but they perform more poorly in life expectancy. A last caution on M. sinensis - if you grow more than one cultivar, keep them separated as they can cross-pollinate and set seed. This is the only grass variety of my list that will definitely set seed and then self-seed- but only if two cultivars are close to each other. Be sure to plant in full sun or the plant will become spindly and floppy.
Sideoats Grama is a warm-season grass that grows from scaly rhizomes. It is the largest and most coarse of the grama grasses. The color is bluish green, with a purplish cast in the spring, maturing to a reddish-brown or straw color in the fall.
Ten to thirty short spikelets hang mainly from one side of the stem and drop off at maturity leaving a zig-zag stem. The flowers are often a beautiful red when the stamens are shedding pollen (shown below). It does not tolerate shading by taller grasses. It is tolerant of dry and hot conditions and hardy to USDA Zone 2b. Grow it in sunny dry upland sites that have poor soils. With fertile soil and moisture it will also thrive but best to avoid heavy with clay. Clumps can be divided in early spring before growth starts.
In Minnesota it occurs throughout the state except in the NE quadrant. It is found all but six of the lower 48 states and also in the lower Canadian Provinces. The genus Bouteloua is an honorary for Claudio and Esteban Bouteloua, 19th century Spanish botanists who studied grasses in the new world. More information on Sideoats Grama.
Switchgrass is a native grass of the tall grass prairie. The native varieties are aggressive and they self-seed. The cultivars that have been tested at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum are much better behaved. All are warm season grasses, meaning that growth is slow in the spring until the days really warm up. Because these cultivars are derived from sturdy native stock, they hold up extremely well in the home landscape. Further the seeds produced are attractive to birds but the plants do not self-seed.
I have only grown three cultivars - ‘Northwind’, 'Prairie Sky' and 'Shenandoah'. 'Northwind' is an outstanding grass. It can reach from 3 to 6 feet in height, needs good sun, at least 5 hours per day for a good plant, tolerates average soil. ‘Northwind’ grows very upright, no sprawling or lodging in hot or rainy weather. (Some of the cultivars available will sprawl by mid-summer if not in full sun - ‘Prairie Sky’ particularly. The flower heads appear only in late summer on sturdy stems. This is a plant to provide a good tall backdrop, support to weaker specimens, and winter interest. Next best is 'Shenandoah'. Not quite as thick stemmed, nor as tall as 'Northwind' but is bushy and tolerates a few less hours of sun.
Switch grasses are tall plants. Northwind can become quite large - up to six feet high - so give it some room and if you need to divide or move them see my notes up under Feather Reed Grass. Japanese beetles seem to like reed grasses and switch grasses but seem to do little harm. Pick them off when you see them.
'Northwind' shown here left and right and above. The plant remains stiff and upright. The seed heads attractive to birds. Left: 'Northwind' in mid-summer with the flower heads fully emerged.
Below are photos of Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah'. The leaves have a little purple variegation. 'Northwind' is pure green.
Below: Two other cultivars of Switchgrass that have more extensive purple color to the leaf blades. Both of these are shorter than Northwind, especially when young. Both seen to do well in Zone 3 and 4.
First photo: Cheyenne Sky™, Second photo: Ruby Ribbons™
More information on Native Switchgrass
Little Bluestem is one of the most widely distributed native grasses in North America, found in all the states but Oregon and Nevada, and in all the lower Canadian Provinces. In Minnesota it is widespread. It is a medium height warm-season grass that is well adapted to grow in well-drained, medium to dry soils. It has excellent drought tolerance. It also adapts to savannas, particularly open Oak woods. For home landscape purposes, you will be happier with one of the cultivars that have been developed for that purpose. Having watched the development of a number of cultivars for several years before buying, I chose one of the 'MinnBlueA' varieties named 'Blue Heaven™'.
Blue Heaven™ is one of the few cultivars tested at the MN Landscape Arboretum that does not seem to fall apart and lodge in late summer. My plants remained sturdy, upright (even with seed heads) and reached about 4 feet high the first year from one gallon pots.
The name takes after the common name of 'bluestem' in that the foliage has a slight blue tint. The late summer color of the seed stems is just outstanding as the photo at right shows.
Put them at least 3 feet apart. They form a nice round clump. Clumps can be divided in early spring before growth starts but it may be a few years before you see the need to divide.
Big Bluestem is a native grass of the tall grass prairies. Its great height (to 8 feet) precludes most uses as an ornamental except that it works well as a massed background planting or in prairie restoration, including when mixed with its tall companion - Indian Grass. This is a warm season plant which does not even start to grow until summer and then flowers in August and September. The maturing stems and flowering panicles turn to a nice purplish-bronze color. The rames number 2 to 6+ (branches of the flowering panicle) and spread apart resembling turkey feet, particularly when 3 in number. It grows from a scaly rhizome which allows the plant to form a nice tuft. It does not compete well with cool season grasses or weeds and should have full sun and a somewhat moist to mesic site. There are several cultivars that are more ornamental with a darker purplish stem and panicle but just as tall. One is called "Blue Warrior" and another is "Dancing Wind" (photo below).
Below: This is the new cultivar "Dancing Wind". It develops a darker purple stem and panicle and is quite sturdy. Shown here growing in Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
More information on Big Bluestem.
Indiangrass is a native grass of the tall grass prairies. Its great height (to 7 feet), precludes most uses as an ornamental except that it works well as a massed background planting or in prairie restoration, including when mixed with its tall companion - Big Bluestem. This is a warm season plant which only starts to grow in summer and then flowers in August and September - just like Big Bluestem. The tall stems take on a golden brown hue in the fall and the maturing spikelets are slightly darker, even dark brown which contrasts with the whitish fine hair of the glumes and the spikelet stalks. It grows from a scaly rhizome which spreads, allowing the plant to form compact colonies. Like Big Bluestem, it needs full sun and moist to mesic soil conditions. It is more aggressive than Big Bluestem suffering less from competition with weeds and cool season grass. Large masses of Indian Grass are quite attractive in the autumn with the golden brown color of the panicle and the white hairs of the spikelets. A cultivar named Sioux Blue is available. More information on Indian Grass
Reference material: To learn more about native grasses that would grow best for your environment I suggest you consult “Ornamental Grasses for Cold Climates” by Mary Hockenberry Meyer. This 40 page soft cover book originally published in 2004 by the University of Minnesota Extension Service (and subsequently updated) is based on research done over 17 years at the University Landscape Arboretum. It is well illustrated with color photos and most importantly will advise you which species are best to avoid. A visit to the Landscape Arboretum in summer and fall, especially to the grass development plot will show you how these grasses will look in the landscape.
Gary Bebeau is a member of the Friends of the Wild Flower Garden. Photos ©G D Bebeau.