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Tallgrass

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Published on: Mar. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 21, 2010

suggests the following native grasses (and one sedge) for landscaping:

  • Prairie Dropseed:die-hard grass that survives on glades. Bunches can reach 4 feet in diameter. It helps to burn prairie dropseed every year. No one knows why this stimulates the plant, but it does. The seed is expensive - an ounce costs about $15. Better to establish plants and strip your own seed for future plantings.
  • Bottlebrush Grass: Grows in shady areas about waist high. Competes well with other plants, but doesn't tend to choke out other plants.
  • Creek Oats: If you've been to the seashore and seen the oatlike grass that helps secure sand dunes, you've seen a close relative. Creek oats are common in Missouri creek areas and will grow in wet shade, unlike most native grasses. The attractive seed head does look like oats.
  • Longspike Tridens: Doesn't grow tall, has a spear-shaped seedhead that lasts longer into winter than other grasses. Has good color in the fall (grass being tan to bluish or purple). Shaw Arboretum is the only source of seed at present.
  • Sideoats Grama: For dry sites. Foliage is low, but seed stalks rise to waist high in good soil. Unusual seed head (with seeds all on one side as name suggests) is attractive.
  • June Grass: A cool season grass (most native grasses are warm season). Grows on western Missouri prairies and is the shortest of the common prairie grasses (about a foot high, with a seed stalk to 2 feet). It has a wheatlike seed head which lasts through June, then the plant goes dormant.
  • Indiangrass: Among the tallest of the tallgrasses (along with big bluestem and switchgrass), Indiangrass is among the most decorative. It has a plumelike seedhead and turns a lovely golden color in autumn. It may collapse because of its height. Some people stake it to keep it upright.
  • Big Bluestem: It's easy to see why big bluestem is called "turkey foot." Look at the distinctive three-toed seedhead that looks just like a turkey's foot. Big bluestem can grow to 8 feet or more, depending on moisture. It makes a wonderful backdrop to bright prairie flowers.
  • Little Bluestem: Little bluestem seems just right for those rock garden niches where a taller grass would overwhelm other plants. It usually grows about 3 feet high and has fuzzy seed sticking out nearly the length of the grass stem. It must have a dry site - it won't survive where there is damp ground. There are many varieties, but avoid Aldus for ornamental plantings. It just isn't pretty. Stick with Missouri varieties.
  • Switchgrass: Commonly planted as a pasture grass, switchgrass also is among the taller native grasses. The delicate, spreading spider-weblike seedhead is beautiful when decorated by dew or frost. It "seeds around," and can spread. "Heavy Metal" is a cultivated variety with a pretty bluish color.
  • Sand Lovegrass: Works in shady places or open woodlands. Will grow in dry areas. The combination of shade-tolerance and drought resistance make it ideal for woodland edges. It has a misty pink/purple coloring, with knee high foliage and waist high seed stalks.
  • Sedges: There are more than 200 sedges in Missouri, most not available from commercial outlets. But one, available only from Shaw Arboretum, is Cussock which looks like prairie dropseed but grows on wet sites. It loves sun, grows in bunches and "Stays put" (doesn't spread by seed).

The difference between grass and sedge is more of a botanist's fancy than that of the average homeowner, but "sedges have edges, grasses are round," meaning sedge stems are three-sided and grass stems are round. Native grass seed is more available than sedge seed.

Undesirables: "Undesirable" is in the eye of the beholder and depends on whether you're using grass for aesthetic or economic purposes. Broomsedge is common in infertile, old fields. It's a bluestem and is attractive, but not a good livestock grass.

Purpletop is another common poor land grass. It's also known as greasegrass (the seedheads have an oily juice that makes them feel greasy). It's more palatable to livestock than broomsedge, but isn't courted by native grass enthusiasts.

There are other "undesirables" among the warm season grasses: stinkgrass (a European import), tumblegrass or ticklegrass (it crawls up your pantleg as does windmillgrass), prairie threeawn, quackgrass (a Eurasian invader), nimblewill, witchgrass (an attractive seedhead) and of course the familiar crabgrass.

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