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The Garden Scoop

Fall Color in Native Grasses and Their Ornamental Uses

Most of us think of tree leaves when we think about beautiful fall foliage, but many ornamental grasses provide wonderful fall color that often extends well into the winter season.  Right now is an excellent time to observe these grasses in the landscape and consider how we might integrate them into our own gardens. 

As far as landscaping trends go, chalk up the use of ornamental grass as one we are in the midst of.  In the past several decades, the use of ornamental grasses has steadily gained popularity.  I’ve observed this trend with interest, but have yet to totally dive in as the overuse of the non-native grasses, like Miscanthus species, has somewhat soured my taste for many strictly ornamental species. However, the growing trend of incorporating native grass species in ornamental planting has sparked new interest for me. 

Although I always viewed these plants in a restoration or more natural setting, I’ve become much more open to their use in ornamental plantings.  They’ve proven to perform well in landscape settings, both aesthetically and in terms of vigor.  To top it all off, they are native, which means they evolved to thrive in our climate and have adapted to native pest populations, often easing maintenance requirements.

When considering fall ornamental value, little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is perhaps my favorite native grass.  During the growing season, this plant has beautifully arching bluish stems, as its name implies.  However, when fall hits, the blue coloration gives way to a wonderful cascade of red to purplish bronze color that lasts through winter.  Plants remain about two to three feet tall at maturity and are perennial, clump-forming grass nicely suited for use as a specimen plant or as a ground cover in a more ‘natural’ garden setting.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) is little bluestem’s taller cousin.  This plant often reaches heights of 6 feet and has interesting and beautiful flowers in late August and September, which many note as resembling wild turkey feet, earning this plant a quite appropriate nickname of “Turkeyfoot”.  Old “Turkeyfoot” doesn’t boast the brighter colors of little bluestem, but does turn a nice bronze color in fall as it gently loses the blueish color in its stems over a several week period.  Given its greater height, this plant works well as a visual screen or a background plant in many settings, but I have also seen it use quite effectively as a specimen plant, given its clump-forming growth habit.

There are many ornamental varieties of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) available these days, although I think the genetics of this plant in its original form are quite striking.  Throughout summer it has green to bluish-green foliage that fades to a beautiful yellow shade in fall that is tinged with various red hues along leaf margins.  Over winter the fall coloration fades out to a beige-ish color, but the autumn display is quite nice.  When added with its interesting, spreading and airy seed heads, which develop in late summer and persist through fall, this plant has excellent appeal throughout most of the late growing season.  In native plantings or prairie settings, switchgrass is known to take over and dominate the stand, making it more difficult as a specimen plant.  With its tall stature (maturing at 3-6 ft tall) it is much better suited in large border plantings or as a screen.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) is another taller native grass with an interesting seed head in fall.  However, it does have a quite showy autumn display, gradually changing from a blue-green color to a burnt orange or reddish shade over fall.  Seed heads are open an airy, like switchgrass, fading to a golden brown in late summer and persisting into early winter.  Also, like switchgrass, this plant is likely better suited to mass plantings in a border, a visual screen or a more naturalized garden setting.

Call me a late adopter, but this trend of adding native grasses to ornamental settings has really gained my interest in recent years.  Not only are these native plants adapted to our climate, but they are also integral habitat to many of our native fauna making it a win, win situation.