Gardening With Wisconsin Native Grasses

Native grasses formed the foundation of the expanses of prairies, savannas and meadows that once covered the greater midwest. They are a natural component, or the basis, of any designed native landscape — offering the perfect complement to native wildflowers in both naturalized and formal settings.

Natie grasses can be incorporated individually as ornamental or structural elements. They can also be grouped or massed, or they can serve as a matrix in a designed plant community. Native grasses add striking fall color and visual interest well into winter; they provide food, nesting materials and habitat cover for birds; and they serve as host plants for numerous butterfly and moth species, as well.

Cool season, warm season.

Grasses that mature early in the growing season and grow while the soil is still cool are referred to as “cool season” grasses. Virginia Wild Rye and Tufted Hairgrass are cool season grasses. Sedges are also cool season growers. Indian Grass, Little Bluestem, Big Bluestem and Prairie Dropseed are all warm season grasses.

Establishing A Native Grass Lawn provides information on how to replace non-native turf grasses with Wisconsin native grasses.

Native Grass Season Wetland Erosion
Control
Benefit Ornamental Ground
Cover
Buffalograss Warm No Yes No Yes Yes
Big Bluestem Warm No Yes Bird No No
Sideoats Grama Warm No No Birds No No
Virginia Wild Rye Cool No Yes Butterflies No No
Indian Grass Warm No Yes Butterflies No No
Little Bluestem Warm No No Butterflies Yes No
Fox Sedge Warm Yes No N/A No No
Pennsylvania Sedge Cool No No N/A No Yes
Prairie Dropseed Warm No No Butterflies No Yes
Pink Muhly Grass Warm No Yes Birds Yes No
Vanilla Sweet Grass Cool Yes No N/A No No
Tufted Hair Grass Cool No Yes Butterflies Yes No
Buffalograss, Bouteloua dactyloides Buffalograss
Benefits: None
Height: 3-9 inches
Bloom Time: Jun, Jul, Aug
Sun: Full Sun
Zones: 4, 5
Soil: Acid, Clay, Loam
Moisture: Dry, Medium
Description: Buffalograss, Buchloe dactyloides, is a dioecious, drought-tolerant, heat-resistant, fine-textured, warm season perennial grass. It spreads by stolons. Somewhat inconspicuous green flowers bloom from June until August. Easily grown in average, dry to medium moisture, well-drained soil in full sun.
Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii Big Bluestem
Benefits: Birds
Height: 5-8 feet
Bloom Time: Aug, Sep, Oct
Sun: Full Sun
Zones: 3, 4, 5
Soil: Clay, Loam, Sand
Moisture: Dry, Medium, Moist
Description: Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) is a tall perennial, warm season grass that was the dominant grass of the tallgrass prairie. It may be grown as an ornamental grass because of its attractive foliage which changes color seasonally, its good architectural height and its interesting flower/seed heads.
Sideoats Grama, Bouteloua curtipendula Sideoats Grama
Benefits: None
Height: 2-3 feet
Bloom Time: Aug, Sep
Sun: Full Sun
Zones: 3, 4, 5
Soil : Sand, Loam
Moisture: Dry, Medium
Description: Side-oats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), is a rarity among native grasses in that it sports tiny attractive flowers during its summer bloom time. When the seed heads dry, they have a distinctly oat-like appearance. Side-oats is a warm-season grass that grows actively during the summer months when soil temperatures are warm. May be mowed for turf grass.
Virginia Wild Rye, Elymus virginicus Virginia Wild Rye
Benefits: Butterflies
Height: 4-5 feet
Bloom Time: Jul, Aug
Sun: Full Sun, Part Sun, Part Shade
Zones: 2, 3, 4, 5
Soil : Clay, Loam, Sand
Moisture: Medium, Moist, Wet
Description: Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus) is a graceful, short-lived perennial similar to Canada Wild Rye, but with a smaller, less showy seed head. It actively grows during the spring and fall when soil temperatures are cool.As a fast-growing grass, Virginia Wild Rye is a good choice for erosion control and stream bank stabilization. It prefers rich, moist areas in clearings or along the forest edge, but can also grow in drier, sunny conditions as well.
Indian Grass, Sorghastrum nutans Indian Grass
Benefits: Butterflies
Height: 5-8 feet
Bloom Time: Aug, Sep
Sun: Full Sun
Zones: 3, 4, 5
Soil: Clay, Loam, Sand
Moisture: Dry, Medium, Moist
Description: Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) is a warm season perennial grass which typically occurs in prairies, glades and open woods. It was one of the dominant grasses of the tallgrass prairie which once covered large parts of the Midwest. It forms upright clumps of slender, blue-green leaves Foliage turns orange-yellow in fall and usually retains hints of color into the winter. Effective for erosion control
Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium Little Bluestem
Benefits: N/A
Height: 2-4 feet
Bloom Time: Aug to Feb
Sun: Full Sun
Zones: 3, 4, 5
Soil : Loam
Moisture: Dry, Medium
Description: Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a native to prairies, fields, clearings, hills, limestone glades, roadsides, waste areas and open woods. It was one of the dominant grasses of the vast tallgrass prairie region which once covered rich and fertile soils. Purplish-bronze flowers on branched stems rising above the foliage in August. Flowers are followed by clusters of fluffy, silvery-white seed heads which are attractive and often persist into winter.
Fox Sedge, Carex vulpinoidea Fox Sedge
Benefits: None
Height: 1-3 feet
Bloom Time: May, Jun, Jul
Sun: Full Sun, Part Sun
Zones: 3, 4, 5
Soil: Loam
Moisture: Wet
Description: Fox Sedge (Carex vulpinoidea) is a remarkable wetland sedge grows to form clumps two feet in diameter. In mid-summer seedheads spray out from the center of the plant for an excellent effect. Its narrow grass-like leaf blades grow in 2 feet clumps up to 3 feet in height. The seedheads, which spray out attractively from the center of the clump, resemble a foxs tail but are short-lived.
Pennsylvania Sedge, Carex pensylvanica Pennsylvania Sedge
Benefits: None
Height: 6-12 inches
Bloom Time: May
Sun: Part Shade, Shade
Zones: 3, 4, 5
Soil: Loam
Moisture: Dry, Medium
Description: Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica) is a shade-loving perennial sedge that is native to thickets and dry woodland areas. It typically grows in loose colonies with a creeping habit. Roots are reddish brown. It is often found in areas with oak trees, hence the additional common name of oak sedge. This is a low sedge with soft, delicate, arching, semi-evergreen leaves. It typically grows in a clump. It is semi-evergreen in moderately cold winter climates.
Pink Muhly Grass, Muhlenbergia capillaris Pink Muhly Grass
Benefits: Birds
Height: 2-3 feet
Bloom Time: Sep, Oct
Sun: Full Sun, Part Sun, Part Shade
Zones: 5, 6
Soil: Clay, Loam, Sand, Rocky
Moisture: Dry, Medium
Description: Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) is one of the most exciting members of the grass world. It is sought after for several reasons: spectacular pink plume color, drought tolerance and undemanding nature. Pink Muhly Grass grows in a mound with erect, blue-green foliage until September when spectacular, billowing pink seed heads form a cotton-candy crown.
Prairie Dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepsis Prairie Dropseed
Benefits: Butterflies
Height: 2-3 feet
Bloom Time: Aug, Sep
Sun: Full Sun, Part Sun
Zones: 3, 4, 5
Soil: Clay, Loam, Sand
Moisture: Medium
Description: Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis) is a great choice of grass for your native landscape is Prairie Dropseed, also called Northern Dropseed. When seed stalks emerge late summer, brush up against it for a cilantro smell. It has a wonderful tussock-forming growth habit and takes on a nice golden hue all throughout the fall and winter.
Vanilla Sweet Grass, Hierocloë odorata Vanilla Sweet Grass
Benefits: None
Height: 1-2 feet
Bloom Time: Jul, Aug
Sun: Full Sun
Zones: 3, 4, 5
Soil: Clay, Loam, Sand
Moisture: Medium, Moist
Description: Vanilla Sweet Grass (Hierocloë odorata) is an aromatic, cool-season perennial growing 10-24 inches in height and spreading about 2 feet per year by underground rhizomes.Its natural habitat is wetlands, prairies, and savannas in wet to medium moisture soils. Though Sweet Grass prefers rich, moist soils, it will grow in almost any soil that receives a minimum of a half day of sun
Tufted Hairgrass, Deschampsia cespitosa Tufted Hair Grass
Benefits: Butterflies, Birds
Height: 1-3 feet
Bloom Time: June
Sun: Part Shade
Zones: 4, 5
Soil: Clay, Loam, Sand
Moisture: Medium, Moist
Description: Tufted Hair Grass (Deschampsia cespitosa) is a clump-forming, cool season grass which is often grown as an ornamental. The grass emerges green and turns gold late in the season, keeping good color and form for winter interest. It typically forms a low, dense tussock (to 16 inches tall) of very thin (1/2 inch wide), arching, flat to inrolled, dark green grass blades (to 2 feet long). Numerous flower stems rise in summer from the foliage mound to a height of 3 feet .