While most varieties of ornamental grasses available for purchase in nurseries are species introduced from other parts of the world, several native ornamental grasses are available. These may need to be ordered from a nursery which specializes in North American native plants, as some are not widely available in commercial nurseries. Native grasses may work better in difficult growing conditions than non-native varieties, and have other advantages for gardeners and wildlife alike.
Types of Native Ornamental Grasses
Most native ornamental grasses are exceptionally suited for harsh conditions. While most have upright habits, growing between 2 and 5 feet tall, a few varieties grow well in somewhat moist or shaded conditions. Commonly available varieties include side-oats grama grass (Bouteloua curtipendula); northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), which are somewhat shade tolerant; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), which is good for very dry soils; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis); common switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), which has many cultivars selected for bright colors; Gulf muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), which can grow in sandy, moist or full-sun conditions; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), both of which are better for well-composted, richer soils.
Features of Native Grasses
Native grasses are generally pest resistant or pest free, making them very low-maintenance plants. Many have clumping forms that do not spread like turf grass, so once they are placed, they only occupy the space where they are situated. Native grasses naturalize easily, meaning they establish rapidly and adapt to the local conditions without much fuss. While individual plants have dense bases that make them difficult to divide, native grasses withstand quite a bit of abuse and recover very well from transplanting and division.
Benefits in the Garden
Many native grass varieties develop vibrant fall colors if placed in full sun, adding visual interest to the yard or garden. Because many grasses occur naturally in dry, sunny conditions, most native ornamental grasses are exceptionally drought tolerant and withstand poor soil conditions. Their seed heads furnish food for a diversity of songbirds, and attract other beneficial insects to the yard by providing a place to hide and hunt.
Care and Cultivation of Native Ornamental Grasses
Many kinds of native ornamental grasses benefit from being cut back to the ground at the end of the growing season or just before spring; this encourages vigorous new growth. In general, taller grasses are best situated in very sunny locations with good drainage. Lower-growing grasses like sedges will do well in sunny spots, but tolerate more shade and moisture than taller grasses.
A native bamboo, the scouring rush (Equisetum hyemale), is exceptionally well suited to very damp conditions, growing in standing water, but is very aggressive and will spread rapidly if the growing site is not prepared to contain the plant prior to being planted.
Where to Find Native Ornamental Grasses
Switchgrasses and bluestem species are the easiest varieties of native ornamental grasses to find at conventional commercial nurseries, though these nurseries may be able to special-order native grasses from wholesale nurseries which specialize in North American natives. Plant nurseries which do most business via the Internet are another option for sourcing hard-to-find native ornamental grasses.