Native bunchgrasses make great landscape plants

By on November 2, 2009

Is it my imagination or do I hear more people talking about using native grasses in their yards these days? Not lawn grass, I mean grasses in flower beds and as substitutes for low shrubs – bunchgrasses.  Several times recently I’ve heard “accent plant” used in reference to a native bunchgrass.

Grasses in an urban landscape (photo Carol Feldman)

Grasses in an urban landscape (photo Carol Feldman)

All this grass talk is encouraging, because certain native bunchgrasses are ideal yard plants for our climate, soil, and overabundant deer. They not only are attractive drought-tolerant landscape plants, they need no attention most of the year, grow just fine without fertilizer in the local calcareous soil, and are deer-resistant.

With its golden-yellow plumelike seedheads, Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) is one of the prettiest fall plants in the Texas. It is gaining popularity as a garden grass and is available in nurseries from time to time. Indian grass can be grown in clumps or as single “accent” plants. It usually grows 3-5 feet high, but can get taller during wet years. The fairly broad leaf blades are bluegreen. Indian grass goes dormant during the winter, but it is perennial.

In the wild in Texas, Indian grass grows throughout East Texas and into the eastern Edwards Plateau, mostly in the part of the state averaging greater than 24 inches of rain per year. However, it also is native to the drier Panhandle and some spots in Trans-Pecos Texas. Indian grass is one of the dominant species of tall-grass prairies.

As its natural distribution would suggest, Indian grass thrives in a variety of soil types.  In the garden, it seems to benefit from an occasional watering, and, of course, it grows well in rich soil. However, there is Indian grass thriving on the back part of our lot where nothing is ever irrigated and the soil couldn’t be called rich.

Lindheimer muhly in a winter landscape (photo Carol Feldman)

Lindheimer muhly in a winter landscape (photo Carol Feldman)

A native bunchgrass more widely available in nurseries is Lindheimer muhly (Muhlenbergia lindheimeri), a grass that can look good in any garden or yard. It’s easy to cultivate. Lindheimer muhly is a handsome gray-green bunchgrass that grows three to five feet tall and sends up long narrow plumes in the fall. It could be grown as an accent plant in much the same way as the exotic pampas grass is used.

Another popular muhly grass for landscaping is Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaries). This bunchgrass is native to Southeast Texas, but does well in Hill Country gardens with a little irrigation during the dry summers. This muhly grass is a spectacular fall bloomer. To catch that special pink glow of the flower plume, plant Gulf muhly in a place that is backlit either by the rising or the setting sun.

A smaller bunchgrass that is gaining wide popularity is Mexican feathergrass (Stipa tenuissima). Its threadlike leaves and feathery silvery seedheads make this little bunchgrass an attractive airy border plant. Mexican feathergrass is native to highlands of the Southwest; therefore, it is highly drought-tolerant.

Two bunchgrasses that I wish were available in nurseries are switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides). They can both serve as interesting “accent plants.”

Switchgrass is probably the only bunchgrass ever to be mentioned in a State of the Union Address. It is the dominant grass in the Cibolo Nature Center tall-grass prairie and also looks good as an individual landscape plant in a yard.

Eastern gamagrass has an interesting seedhead related to corn, with seeds stacked in the same way. This grass was once rumored to be the ancestor of corn, but research in Mexico proved that another grass has that distinction. Still, it’s a nice bunchgrass.