Using native grasses to add visual interest for all seasons
Grasses add texture and movement to ornamental plantings and provide interest throughout the year. They perform magically among flowering perennials and create a flowing base layer for meadow plantings. Even in winter, their canopies give the garden structure and order.
Oklahoma’s native grasses range in size and scale from low-growing blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) to towering big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii). For height and drama turn to the “four horsemen of the prairie,” the grasses that dominate the tallgrass prairie: big bluestem, switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), little bluestem (Shizachyrium scoparium), and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans). These grasses make stunning accents and backdrops in mixed borders. Look for colorful cultivars such as ‘Blackhawks’ big bluestem or ‘Heavy Metal’ switchgrass.
Smaller native grasses also shine in the landscape. Side oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) work well as a base for prairie and meadow plantings, or as filler in more traditional planting beds where they can be planted individually or in drifts. A gardener favorite is ‘Blonde Ambition’ blue grama, with fine blue-green foliage and unique eyelash-like flowers. These grasses love full sun and thrive under Oklahoma’s diverse growing conditions.
For shady areas, inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) makes a lovely mass planting. Also called fish-on-a-hook, decorative seed heads dangle from gracefully arched stems. Splitbeard bluestem (Andropogon ternarius) also tolerates partial shade and produces airy, silver-white seed heads in autumn.
Native grasses for lawns
As homeowners seek more sustainable lawn solutions, native grasses provide many opportunities. Not only can they provide the same functions as traditional lawns, but native grasses also support wildflowers for homeowners looking to create a colorful, ecologically rich lawn.
The same species can be used for each goal. Native grasses can be trimmed short for a manicured lawn to provide a lush play surface for children and pets, or they can be left unmown for a meadow-like appearance and interplanted with wildflowers. Buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides) is the most widely available native turf grass and extensive breeding work has been conducted to select for improved varieties including ‘Texoka’, ‘Legacy’, and ‘Prestige’. Seed is commercially available for common buffalograss and ‘Texoka’, the other improved varieties are only available as plugs.
Blue grama grass is also widely used as a turfgrass, either sold by itself or as a mixture with buffalograss. Habiturf®, a blend created by the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, is one of several commercially available mixes, this one adding curly mesquite (Hilaria belangeri) to the mix of buffalograss and blue grama. All three species are warm season grasses that are well adapted to hot, dry conditions. They create a soft lawn that tolerates light foot traffic.
Native turfgrasses and ornamental grasses have low water and nutrient needs. They tend to flop over if given too much of either. They are well adapted to our heat and tolerate periods of drought. Ornamental grasses provide excellent erosion control as well as a valuable source of food and shelter to songbirds, such as rosy finches, juncos and several native sparrows. They also serve as larval host plants for a variety of butterflies and skippers.