Wild About Texas – October, 2007
Native grasses provide seed sources for birds and other wildlife. The leaves are used by many animals for nest-building and serve as larval food sources for a variety of skipper butterflies. Combine them with plants of contrasting forms to create textural tapestries. The slightest breeze animates a garden composed with grasses.
Grasses are effective as specimens, accents in a mixed planting and for providing structure in wildflower meadows. Full to half-day sun is ideal for most grasses, but there are a few choices for woodland gardens.
To tidy up at winter’s end, most gardeners cut their clump grasses to within a few inches of the crown. Although many people do it, I do not recommend cutting feathergrass or any of the muhlys, as they do not regenerate from the base each year and are slow to recover. A leaf rake works well to remove dead leaves, and old flower stalks may be broken off by hand.
Below is a listing of a few Texas all-stars, including names, heights and native distributions. They are all clump grasses, meaning they do not spread by runners (stolons or rhizomes) nor are they mat-forming. Under favorable conditions, they will spread by seed. Species typically do best within their native ranges, but most are successful under garden conditions as well.
Bushy bluestem (Andropogon glomeratus): 2-5 ft. Native statewide except Panhandle. Great for poor-draining or seasonally moist areas. Does well under supplemental irrigation. Bronze color in fall and winter.
Side-oats gramma (Bouteloua curtipendula): 1.5-3 ft. Native statewide. State grass of Texas. Seeds from June-Nov. Excellent bird food.
Inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium): 3 ft. Native to East and Central Texas. Distinct texture for heavy shade or sun. Poor drainage is fine. New foliage begins to appear in mid-winter.
Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris): 2-3 ft. Native to East and Southeast Texas. Clouds of stunning pink flowers in Oct. Prefers good drainage and average water.
Big muhly (M. lindheimeri): 4-6 ft. Native to Central Texas. Open silvery plumes in Oct. It’s an elegant substitute for invasive pampas grass and has softer leaves that will not scratch.
Seep muhly (M. reverchonii): 1-3 ft. Native to Central and North-Central Texas. Light pink- to cream-colored, delicate, airy flowerheads emerge in Oct. Grows in well-drained, moist to moderate soils.
Mexican feathergrass: (Nassella tenuissima): 2-3 ft. Native to West Texas. Don’t resist your urge to fondle this gorgeous grass! Provide well-drained conditions ideally with afternoon shade. Try gravel mulches.
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum): 3-6 ft. Native statewide. Begins flowering in summer. Seasonal poor drainage is fine. Plant in full sun to prevent flopping. Bold form.
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium): 2-4 ft. Native statewide. Stalwart of the prairie. Silver-blue foliage turns coppery brown after freeze.
Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans): 4-7 ft. Native statewide. Yellow flowers in late summer, gray-green foliage turns golden in winter. Seasonal poor drainage is fine. Sturdy roots are difficult to dig up.
For more information about Texas native plants, visit the Wildflower Center’s Web site at www.wildflower.org.
About the author: Andrea DeLong-Amaya is the Director of Horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.