Cultivars of Native Midwestern Grasses for the Home Landscape

Ornamental grasses have become popular additions to home landscapes in the last 25 to 30 years.  Ornamental grasses are easy to grow, require little maintenance, are long-lived, and relatively pest and disease free.  They also provide multi-season interest.  Attractive features of ornamental grasses include color, texture, form or growth habit, movement, and sound.  Foliage colors range from shades of green to blue, yellow, tan, and reddish purple.  Textures vary from fine to coarse.  Plant forms range from low, mounding plants to tall, upright plants.  Many ornamental grasses add movement and sound to the landscape as they gracefully wave and rustle in the wind.  In the home landscape, ornamental grasses can be utilized as ground covers, specimen plants, background plants, and screens. 

For many years, Miscanthus sinensis (a non-native grass) and its many cultivars were the most widely planted ornamental grasses in home landscapes.  In recent years, however, research has found that many cultivars of Miscanthus sinensis produce viable seeds and have the potential to become invasive.  To prevent the possible introduction of another invasive plant species, home gardeners should consider native prairie grasses when selecting ornamental grasses for the home landscape.  Excellent cultivars of native prairie grasses are widely available.  These cultivars possess better growth habits, foliage colors, and other characteristics compared to the species.  A list of suggested cultivars of native grasses (based on their performance in Midwestern gardens) is provided below. 

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)
Big bluestem was often the most common plant species of the tallgrass prairie.  Plants grow 4 to 6 feet tall in dry sites, 6 to 8 feet tall in moist soils.  The foliage of big bluestem is green with a bluish cast in summer, often turning reddish bronze in fall after frost.  Plants bloom in August and September.  The purplish flower clusters are divided into three, finger-like parts, giving rise to the additional common name of turkey foot. 

            Blackhawks - grows 5 feet tall; leaves are green in spring but turn to dark burgundy to purple by late summer. 

            Dancing Wind - grows 6 feet tall; leaves are green with reddish purple accents in spring and early summer, eventually turning to dark scarlet to purple by late summer. 

            Indian Warrior - upright plants grow 5 to 6 feet tall; green foliage develops purple tones in fall. 

            Red October - grows 6 feet tall; deep green leaves in spring and early summer turn to reddish purple to burgundy in late summer, foliage eventually becomes scarlet red after the first frost. 

Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis)
Blue grama is a short, clump-forming grass which is found in the drier areas of the tallgrass prairie.  In Iowa, blue grama is mainly found in the northwestern counties and the Loess Hills.  Plants have narrow, bluish gray leaves which turn golden brown in fall.  It grows 1 to 2 feet tall.  Blue grama produces purple-tinged flowers in early to mid-summer.  Seed heads consist of short spikes that droop from one side of the seed stalk, the seed heads resembling a human eyebrow or comb.

            Blonde Ambition - grows 2 to 3 feet tall; produces chartreuse flowers which develop into blonde-colored seed heads, the seed heads remain intact and attractive into early winter.  

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
Switchgrass was one of the dominant grasses of the tallgrass prairie.  It is a vigorous, clump-forming, upright grass.  Plants often remain standing upright well into winter.  Switchgrass grows 4 to 6 feet tall.  It tolerates a wide range of soils, everything from dry to wet soils.  The medium green foliage turns yellow in fall, fading to tan in winter. 

            Cheyenne Sky - grows 4 feet tall; upright plants have blue-green foliage, leaves turn to deep wine red in summer. 

            Cloud Nine - upright, arching plants grow 6 to 7 feet tall; blue-green foliage turns to golden yellow in fall. 

            Dallas Blues - plants grow 6 feet tall; the 1-inch-wide foliage is blue-green in summer, yellow in fall, and tan in winter.  

            Heavy Metal - upright plants grow 5 feet tall; metallic blue foliage turns yellow in fall, foliage is tan in winter. 

            Northwind - narrow, erect plants grow 4 to 5 feet tall; olive green leaves turn yellow in fall  before fading to tan in winter; 2014 Perennial Plant of the Year. 

            Ruby Ribbons™ - plants grow 3 feet tall; blue-green foliage gradually changes to ruby-red in summer. 

            Shenandoah - erect plants grow 3 to 4 feet tall; bluish green leaves turn to burgundy in summer. 

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Little bluestem is the dominant grass in the mixed grass or midgrass prairie.  Little bluestem and side oats grama (Bouteloua grama) are the two most common grasses of the Loess Hills in western Iowa.  Little bluestem grows 2 to 4 feet tall.  It has blue-green foliage.  In fall, its foliage turns bronzy orange.  Little bluestem is tough and easy to grow.  It performs well in dry and poor soils. 

            Blaze - plants grow 3 feet tall; blue-green leaves turn to shades of orange, red, and purple in fall. 

            Blue Heaven™ - erect plants grow 3 to 4 feet tall; blue-green foliage turns to burgundy red with pink and purple tones in fall; University of Minnesota introduction. 

            Carousel - upright, compact plants grow 2 to 3 feet tall; blue-green leaves turn to copper, orange, and mahogany in fall; plants don’t lodge or flop over. 

            Jazz - upright plants grow 2 to 3 feet tall; silvery blue-green leaves turn to burgundy red or purple in fall; plants don’t lodge. 

            Prairie Blues - grows 3 to 4 feet tall; gray-blue foliage turns to shades of orange and red in fall. 

            Prairie Munchkin - compact, upright plants grow 2 to 3 feet tall; blue-green leaves become a mix of orange and purple in fall. 

            Standing Ovation - rigid, upright plants grow 3 to 4 feet tall; has silvery blue-green leaves, foliage varies from maroon to purple in fall. 

            The Blues - grows 3 to 4 feet tall; silvery blue-green leaves turn to shades of orange and red in fall; plants tend lodge or flop over in summer. 

Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Indian grass is common throughout the tallgrass prairie.  Plants typically grow 4 to 6 feet tall.  Indian grass has blue-green foliage. In fall, the foliage turns orange-yellow.  Six- to twelve-inch-long, yellowish flower heads rise above the foliage in late July and August.   Indian grass tolerates a wide range of soils and is easy to establish. 

            Indian Steel - upright plants grow 4 to 5 feet tall; blue-green leaves turn yellow in fall.

            Sioux Blue - upright plants grow 5 to 6 feet tall; metallic blue foliage turns yellow in fall; showy yellow flower panicles in summer.

            St. Louis - plants grow 6 feet tall; blue-green leaves turn orange-red in fall. 

Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
Prairie dropseed is a fine-textured grass which grows in fountain-like clumps.  Clumps are 1½ to 2 feet wide and about 3 feet tall.  Feathery flower panicles appear in late summer (August and September).  Its tiny flowers produce a distinctive fragrance.  The flagrance has been compared to buttered popcorn or coriander.  Prairie dropseed foliage takes on a golden hue in fall.  Prairie dropseed tolerates a wide range of soils, but prefers dry, rocky soils.  It is easy to grow, but tends to be slow to establish. 

            Tara - plants grow 1½ to 2 feet tall; fine-textured green leaves are upright rather than arching; orange-red fall color.

*The plant heights of the aforementioned grasses include the flowers.        

           

           

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