Facebook LinkedIn Email Pinterest Twitter Instagram YouTube Icon Navigation Search Icon Main Search Icon Video Play Icon Audio Play Icon Headphones Icon Plus Icon Minus Icon Check Icon Print Icon Note Icon Heart Icon Filled Heart Icon Single Arrow Icon Double Arrow Icon Hamburger Icon TV Icon Close Icon Sorted Hamburger/Search Icon
Northern Plains Regional Reports

Native Ornamental Grasses for the Northern Plains

Add texture and structure to your garden beds and borders with these easy-care grasses

A mix of native ornamental grasses. Photo: Chris Schlenker

Native ornamental grasses have an important place in the prairie landscape of the Northern Plains, where at one time they formed the foundation of the North American Prairie. Capable of surviving years of drought and of floods, summers of extreme heat and winters of bitter cold, native grasses are adapted to our region, so you can rest assured that they will provide interest throughout the years with minimal maintenance. Consider adding one or more of these prairie native grasses to your garden, and let their unique textures and structures carry your landscape design well into fall and winter.

Big bluestem
Big bluestem can reach up to 7 feet tall. Photo: Chris Schlenker

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii, Zones 4–10) is a native North American prairie grass that forms 4- to 7-foot-tall clumps of silvery-blue foliage followed by purplish flower spikes in August and September. Big bluestem is capable of substantial growth in moist, fertile soils, but is less apt to topple in dry, infertile soils. Establishment can be slow at first as the grass develops an extensive root system, but once established, it has excellent drought tolerance. With its prominent height, big bluestem can work in the landscape by providing structure and form.

Blue Heaven™ little bluestem
Blue Heaven™ little bluestem blends dramatic shades of teal and purple. Photo: Chris Schlenker

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium, Zones 3–10) is a great clump-forming native grass that typically reaches a height of 2 to 4 feet and can easily find a home in any landscape. Little bluestem performs well in poor soil and can tolerate high heat and humidity as well as drought conditions once established. Fall colors range from a tan and orange wheat color to a reddish purple depending on the cultivar. Blue Heaven™ little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium ‘MinnblueA’, Zones 3–9) is one of my favorites. The upright blue foliage is followed by shades of red, burgundy, and purple that really makes it stand out in the landscape.

Prairie Winds® ‘Cheyenne Sky’ switch grass
Prairie Winds® ‘Cheyenne Sky’ switch grass’s green foliage gives way to a deep red. Photo: Chris Schlenker

Switch grass (Panicum virgatum, Zones 4–9) tolerates a wide range of soils, including dry ones, but prefers moist, sandy, or clay soils. Switch grass can also tolerate occasional flooding; however, overly rich soils may cause the grass to flop. Several different cultivars have been developed of this clump-forming prairie native grass; they range in height from 3 to 6 feet and display varying shades of blue foliage that turns yellow and tan in fall with touches of red and burgundy. Prairie Winds® ‘Cheyenne Sky’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Cheyenne Sky’, Zones 4–9) is a shorter cultivar that forms a tight vase shape that is perfect for adding to a fall container or placing in the middle or front edge of a border.

Indian grass
Indian grass has long, plump panicles that darken to a chestnut brown color. Photo: Chris Schlenker

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans, Zones 3–9) is easily grown in average, dry to medium moist, well-drained soils. In addition, it is tolerant of a wide range of soils, including heavy clays. It can also do quite well in poor, dry, infertile soils and reach a height of 3 to 5 feet with slender, blue-green leaves that turn orange-yellow in fall. The feathery, light brown panicles that darken to a bronze chestnut brown as they mature are perfect for adding to a dried flower arrangement or simply enjoying in the winter landscape.

Prairie dropseed
Prairie dropseed is slow growing and stays low at a maximum height of 3 feet. Photo: Chris Schlenker

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis, Zones 3–9) is a drought-tolerant prairie native that prefers dry, rocky soils but also tolerates heavy clays. A slow-growing, heat- and drought-tolerant grass, prairie dropseed features beautiful, upright, arching emerald green foliage. This foliage reaches a height and width of 2 to 3 feet. The landscape appeal carries on with panicles that rise 2 to 3 feet above the foliage in August and turn golden yellow with orange hues in late fall before fading to light brown during winter.

These are all warm-season grasses that require minimal maintenance once established. Just give them a yearly haircut prior to new growth in late winter or early spring. These tried and true native grasses are great additions to feature in the landscape that reflect the beautiful prairie of the Northern Plains.

—Chris Schlenker is the head gardener of McCrory Gardens at South Dakota State University in Brookings, South Dakota.

View Comments

Comments

Log in or create an account to post a comment.

Related Articles

The Latest

Magazine Cover

Take your passion for plants to the next level

Subscribe today and save up to 44%

"As a recently identified gardening nut I have tried all the magazines and this one is head and shoulders above the pack."

Video

View All

We hope you’ve enjoyed your free articles. To keep reading, become a member today.

Get complete site access to decades of expert advice, regional content, and more, plus the print magazine.

Start your FREE trial