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Prairie grasses with a personality

URBANA, Ill. - When looking for an ornamental grass to either add to your perennial plant collection or to get your collection started, there are a number of fine grasses to choose from, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“Size, shape, color, and texture often play into the decision,” said Greg Stack.  “Another factor that is becoming important to many gardeners is the desire to include natives into their perennial border. One such example is big bluestem, a grass that has been found as a major component in nearly all of the tall grass prairies in the United States.”

Big bluestem has been available to home gardeners for many years. This warm season, (emerging late in the spring), tall, (often 5 to 8 feet), clump-forming grass is a great addition to the perennial garden, Stack said.  

In the fall, this grass takes on a yellowish orange look with the seed heads having a slightly purple hue. The seed heads have three branches and as a result, have been given the common name of “turkey foot” for their resemblance to the feet of this bird. “All in all, it’s a very dramatic-looking grass,” he added.

Stack explained that plant breeders have been working to give the gardener some choices beyond the standard species of bluestem, and they have come up with two new big bluestem cultivars that offer a whole different look, he said.

The first is a cultivar called ‘Rain Dance’. This bluestem grows up to 6 feet tall and forms a nice, loose open clump. The summer foliage is a deeper green than the species bluestem, and the leaves are tipped with a red coloration. “In the fall, look for the plant to turn a dark maroon. It also produces red flowers on red stems. This creates a very dramatic look that signals fall in a big way,” Stack said.

The other new bluestem is called ‘Red October’. This bluestem grows 5 to 6 feet tall and has deep green summer foliage. In the late summer, the foliage turns purple and then a very vivid scarlet in autumn, giving the garden some spectacular late-season color.

“Both of these grasses are winter hardy to zone 3 and once established are very drought tolerant,” he said. “Because of their size, they make good background plants or even specimen plants in mixed borders. They tend to be clump formers, which makes them good to use with other plants without the fear of them taking over or becoming invasive.”

Bluestem prefers a full-sun location, and if planted in a moist location, will be considerably taller than if it is planted in a dry spot.

“If you’re in the market for a native prairie grass that is distinctively different from what the early settlers saw in the Great Plains, try one of these new introductions,” Stack recommended

Source: ACES