Most of Iowa’s original prairie grasslands have been converted to corn production. However, native grass species continue to grow throughout the state and many are candidates for ornamental grasses. The tall grass prairie areas that were once populated with these species still harbor them.
Prairie dropseed is common in the tall grass prairie areas. It is a native Iowa grass that thrives in dry soils. Prairie dropseed grows in a neat mound. Its leaves are long and narrow, and they fall into graceful curves from the center of the mound. The inflorescence, or flower/seed stalk, is erect with rather showy little florets with red stamens. Prairie dropseed has small glands at the base of the branches that produce a pleasant aroma. The grains are also fragrant and were used by the Kiowa tribe for flour. Prairie dropseed grows easily from seed.
Obovate beakgrain is a native Iowa grass found in woodland areas in the southern and central parts of the state. This grass is unusual in that it is one of the few grasses that grows in moist, shady areas, a feature that makes it a good choice for ornamental shade gardens. It is a cool-weather grass with an extended flowering period from June to October. The leaves have an interesting off-center midnerve. The grain of obovate beakgrain is leathery and bottle-shaped, and it changes shape as it matures. This grass grows easily from seed and will spread by rhizomes.
Various species of common reed grass are found throughout North America. Even though it is widespread, it is a plant that makes a fine ornamental specimen grass. Native to Iowa, common reed grows in moist ditches, where it can be difficult to control. However, it is a valuable aid to wetland restoration and for erosion control because it forms densely rooted colonies connected by stolens and rhizomes. The seedheads are feathery and attractive, gracefully floating above the leaves. The tough stems and leaves of common reed grass were used to thatch and to weave mats. Plant fibers were used to make ropes and nets, and the strong stems could be used as arrow shafts. The stem juice is sweet and was used to obtain a sugar for candy and to sweeten drinks. The sweet stems were also ground into flour.