Native Grasses in the Garden

One of the more exciting trends in gardening today is the use of grasses, not for lawns, but as ornamental plants. Even though they do not have showy blooms, grasses can add graceful beauty to gardens and landscapes.

With long narrow leaves and upright habit of growth, grasses have a fine texture, which can provide interesting contrast to other plants in flower gardens.  They can also be used alone as accent plants in the landscape. Many grasses produce attractive seed clusters and have foliage that changes color at the end of the summer.  The dried foliage of grasses can be left standing through the winter, adding movement and texture to the landscape when garden flowers are dormant and tree branches bare.

Little Bluestem and Coneflower seedheads. Photo by Emily Weaver.

Many of the grasses being used in landscaping today have their origins in Asia and Europe. There are a number of different grasses from our prairies, however, that also make excellent ornamental plants. These native grasses possess the added advantage of being well adapted to our soil and climate.

Big bluestem, indiangrass and switchgrass are three tallgrass prairie species that make attractive plants in the garden or landscape. Growing 4-6 feet in height, they can be used in flower beds and borders as screens and as accent plants.  Switchgrass is the most common of these added to landscape designs because of cultivars like ‘Northwind’, ‘Cheyenne Sky’ and ‘Totem Pole’, which offer consistent height and color year after year.

Like the leaves of certain trees, the foliage of these grasses also changes color with the onset of fall.  Big bluestem is particularly noted for its reddish fall color. Each of these species also produce distinctive seed clusters that add interest to the plant toward the end of the growing season. The seed clusters are shaped like a turkey’s foot.  Indiangrass produce attractive golden plumes.  Switchgrass seed cluster are open and feathery.

Indiangrass plumes. Photo by Brad Guhr.

Sand lovegrass is another attractive taller species. It grows 3-4 feet tall and is found in sandy prairie areas.  It produces graceful arching foliage and open, airy seed heads.

Although found throughout much of the Great Plains, little bluestem and sideoats grama are two grasses that are particularly characteristic of the mixed grass prairie region of central Kansas. Both make beautiful additions to gardens and landscapes.

Little bluestem is a fine-textured, clump-forming grass that grows 2-3 feet tall.  Its landscape value is enhanced by its attractive reddish coloration late in the growing season. There are several selections that offer nice winter coloration and sturdy habit.

Beautiful little bluestem in fall. Photo by Emily Weaver.

Sideoats grama is of similar height.  The most ornamental attribute of this grass is its beautiful seed clusters.  The seeds hang gracefully from one side of the seed stalk, giving the plant a windswept look, even when the air is still. The Sioux Indians called this plant “banner-waving-in-the-wind grass.”

Prairie Dropseed is a favorite of mine because it is long-lived and tough.  It is so tough, that they are often planted in mass in street medians.  The fine textured leaves and airy, fragrant panicles are a nice addition to any landscape.  Each clump can reach 12-18 inches wide and up to 24 inches tall.  The entire plant turns shades of orange and yellow in the fall, providing multiple seasons of interest.  It is great in a border, as a groundcover, in an informal prairie setting or as an accent to other short or mid-range perennials.

For people who live in prairie country, it may be easy to take our native grasses for granted. Yet these plants with their simple form and subtle beauty, can make attractive additions to the home landscape.

Switchgrass and big bluestem. Photo by Emily Weaver.

Beautiful Bee Balm

Even though the grasses of the prairie are drying up and seed heads are ripening, creeping quietly beneath it all is bee balm – still green and growing. I have stumbled on to quite a bit of it around our grounds as I begin to hang Christmas lights through the gardens. I can tell when I am tromping through a patch of bee balm because of the fresh, minty smell the crushed leaves exude. Extremely hardy and adaptive, monarda species stay green long into fall and early winter. Bee balm is a timeless prairie flower, and an excellent performer in the landscape.
Here are some tips to getting the most from your Monarda!

Monarda fistulosa flower, photographed by Brad Guhr

Know Before You Grow

Though bee balm is quite adaptable, each species has its preferences and will thrive in specific environments. Monarda fistulosa, for example, is native to much of North America and thrives in full to part sun conditions. You may have heard this plant referred to as wild bergamot or Oswego tea. This is the species you are most likely to find in the prairies of eastern Kansas. Monarda didyma, however, prefers a much shadier and protected environment. This type of bee balm is native to eastern regions of the US and cannot handle our full Kansas sun. There are countless varieties of bee balm, specially made to fit any color scheme or garden space. Just be sure to check the parentage of the cultivar to know what its true growth habits are.

‘Cherry Pops’ Bee Balm. Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Not Just For Bees

As I mentioned earlier, Monarda species often have common names that refer to its culinary use. It is sometimes called wild bergamot because of its aroma, reminiscent of bergamot orange oil in Earl Grey tea. The use of bee balm as a tea has a long history within the nations of Native Americans, for its pleasant taste and medicinal properties. I have personally had tea made from bee balm growing right here on the Arboretum grounds, and I love the warm, spicy flavor. I have even seen people use the flowers as cake decorations and in salads! Do your research and be sure you have edible species of bee balm growing in your garden before you decide to make any herbal concoctions of your own.

Monarda seed heads in winter add lovely texture to the landscape.

The Mildew Dilemma

One of bee balm’s fatal flaws is its tendency to contract powdery mildew. This is a fungal disease that causes the leaves to look as if they have been dusted with powdered sugar. This affliction causes leaves to twist and break off, and can lead to quite a bit of defoliation. It usually doesn’t harm the health of the plant, but can make it look a little sickly through the growing season. There are lots of ways to treat this issue, from conscientious watering to chemical options, as well as low-cost low-impact homemade remedies. Even though Monarda is so susceptible to this disease, it still stays in my top list of landscape plants because of its floriforus habit, aromatic leaves and pollinator attraction. As you see in the photo above, it even looks nice in the winter when the globe-shaped seed heads make their debut!