Ornamental grasses are becoming a regular addition to many Pennsylvania home gardens, says botanist Edward Dix of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Choosing native grasses accustomed to the local soil and climate for your Keystone State landscape will maximize your chances of success. Luckily, Pennsylvania grasses vary widely in height, texture, color and form.
Eastern Bottlebrush Grass
Eastern bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix) has interesting 5- to 9-inch flower spikes extending above its dark green leaves. During the summer, clusters of pale green spikelets up to 1.5 inches long branch out from either side of the stems, creating the bottlebrush appearance for which the grass is named. The spikelets, becoming tan as they ripen, dislodge from their stems quite easily.
Eastern bottlebrush grass grows wild in Pennsylvania's forest clearings and along woodland edges. Standing between 2.5 and 5 feet high, this perennial grass has become a popular ornamental for home gardens and land reclamation projects. It likes a sunny to partly shady location and loamy soil. It's not fussy about soil moisture, tolerating both dry and damp conditions.
Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) played a critical role in the lives of America's Plains Indians. A favorite food of the American bison, it continues to feed domesticated grazing cattle today. Growing up to 8 feet high, this perennial blue-green grass becomes purple in the fall. It has branched seed heads said to resemble wild turkey's feet.
Big bluestem flowers between August and November, growing wild in Pennsylvania's damp grasslands. Plant it in sun to part shade and moist acidic soil that will allow its deep taproot. It tolerates sand, loam and clay. Avoid over-watering or feeding big bluestem, or it may become too heavy and topple over. Expect sparrows to nest in your plants and feed on their seeds.
Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), like big bluestem, once covered the American prairies. It has blue-gray leaves, unmistakable coppery flower spikes and golden seed heads on stems up to 8 feet tall. A summer bloomer, it continues to perform with orange-rust to purple autumn foliage that survives the winter. Dried Indian grass adds a chestnut-colored metallic gleam to floral designs.
Indian grass, found in Pennsylvania's open woods and on dry hillsides, remains short until just before its August to October bloom. When planted in masses, its clumping habit makes an attractive ornamental. Indian grass tolerates both sun and shade, but likes moist, rich soil high in limestone. It can handle both drought and seasonal flooding. Birds feed on Indian grass seeds and weave the leaves into their nests.