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Ornamental Grasses in Illinois

native grasses image by Lucy Cherniak from

Ornamental grasses are the tallest members of the grass family with their height being measured in feet rather than inches. The plants add texture and dimension to a garden when planted behind shorter plants and in front of taller shrubs and trees. Ornamental grasses also do well planted under large trees, as single specimen plants, as ground covers, or in large containers with other plants to accent a patio. Buy ornamental grasses that grow in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Plant Hardiness Zones for Illinois-- zones 4B through 6B.

Chinese Fountain Grass

Chinese fountain grass ( Pennisetum alopecuroides) is also known as fountain grass, Chinese pennisetum and swamp foxtail. It is a perennial ornamental grass that grow from 2 to 4 feet tall and just as wide. The plant produces flat, narrow green leaves that grow from 12 to 20 inches long and turn golden brown in the winter. The yellow or purple flowers grow in clusters up to 8 inches long from summer into early winter. Plant Chinese fountain grass in full sun or partial shade and in a soil that is kept moist, but not wet. The grass is hardy in all but a small section in northwest Illinois.

Indian Wood-Oats

Indian wood-oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) is also known as northern sea oats, broadleaf uniola, spangle grass, wood oats and wild oats. The plant grows from 2 to 5 feet tall and 2 feet across and produces flat leaves that grow from 5 to 8 inches long and 1 inch wide and flowers that grow in flat clusters that grow from 1 to 2 inches long. Both the leaves and the flowers turn tan in autumn and red-bronze in the winter. Plant Indian wood-oats in full sun or partial shade and a dry to moist soil. The plant can be grown in all areas of Illinois.

Reed Canary Grass

Reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea) grows from 2 ½ to 5 feet tall and produces green or blue leaves that grow up to 10 inches long and 3/4 inch wide. The flowers grow in 10-inch clusters, starting out as light green, turning golden tan, then light tan. Plant the grass in full sun or partial sun and in a fertile soil that is moist to wet. Reed canary grass will do dormant in the winter and grow again the next spring. The plant is seen more often in northern Illinois, but it can be grown anywhere in the state.

Big Bluestem

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii 'Vitman') is also knows as turkeyfoot. The grass grows from 4 to 8 feet tall and turns a maroon-tan in the fall. It has small red, blue or brown flowers that grow in clusters from August through November. Plant big bluestem in full sun or partial shade and in dry to moist soils. The plant is a favorite of song birds and butterflies.

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