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.

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.

Native Grass Season Wetland Erosion
Control
Benefit Ornamental Ground
Cover
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
Big Bluesem
Benefits: Birds
Height: 5-8 feet
Bloom Time: Aug, Sep, Oct
Sun Shade: Full Sun
Zones: 3, 4, 5
Soil Conditions: Clay, Loam Sand
Soil Moisture: Dry, Medium, Moise
Color: Bronze
Spacing: 2 feet
Description: Big Bluestem 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
Benefits:
Height: 2-3 feet
Bloom Time: Aug, Sep
Sun Shade: Full Sun
Zones: 3, 4, 5
Soil Conditions: Sand, Loam
Soil Moisture: Dry, Medium
Color: Straw
Spacing: 1 foot
Description: Side-oats Grama, 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
Benefits: Butterflies
Height: 4-5 feet
Bloom Time: Jul, Aug
Sun Shade: Full Sun, Partial Sun, Partial Shade
Zones: 2, 3, 4, 5
Soil Conditions: Clay, Loam, Sand
Soil Moisture: Medium, Moist, Wet
Color: Straw
Spacing: 1 foot
Description: Virginia Wild Rye 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
Benefits: Butterflies
Height: 5-8 feet
Bloom Time: Aug, Sep
Sun Shade: Full Sun
Zones: 3, 4, 5
Soil Conditions: Clay, Loam, Sand
Soil Moisture: Dry, Medium, Moist
Color: Straw, Gold
Spacing: 2 feet
Description: Indian Grass 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 Bluesem
Benefits: N/A
Height: 2-4 feet
Bloom Time: Aug to Feb
Sun Shade: Full Sun
Zones: 3, 4, 5
Soil Conditions: Loam
Soil Moisture: Dry, Medium
Color: Purple, Bronze
Spacing: 2 feet
Description: 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
Benefits: None
Height: 1-3 feet
Bloom Time: May, Jun, Jul
Sun Shade: Full Sun, Partial Sun
Zones: 3, 4, 5
Soil Conditions: Loam
Soil Moisture: Wet
Color: Green
Spacing: 1 foot
Description: This 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
Benefits: None
Height: 6-12 inches
Bloom Time: May
Sun Shade: Partial Shade, Shade
Zones: 3, 4, 5
Soil Conditions: Loam
Soil Moisture: Dry, Medium
Color: Green
Spacing: 6 inches
Description: 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
Benefits: Birds
Height: 2-3 feet
Bloom Time: Sep, Oct
Sun Shade: Full Sun, Partial Sun, Partial Shade
Zones: 5, 6
Soil Conditions: Clay, Loam, Sand, Rocky
Soil Moisture: Dry, Medium
Color: Pink, Pinkish-red
Spacing: 2-3 feet
Description: Pink Muhly Grass 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
Benefits: Butterflies
Height: 2-3 feet
Bloom Time: Aug, Sep
Sun Shade: Full Sun, Partial Sun
Zones: 3, 4, 5
Soil Conditions: Clay, Loam, Sand
Soil Moisture: Medium
Color: White
Spacing: 2 feet
Description: 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
Benefits: None
Height: 1-2 feet
Bloom Time: Jul, Aug
Sun Shade: Full Sun
Zones: 3, 4, 5
Soil Conditions: Clay, Loam, Sand
Soil Moisture: Medium, Moist
Color: Green, Yellow, Straw
Spacing: 1 foot
Description: Vanilla Sweet Grass 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 Hair Grass
Benefits: Bees, Butterflies, Birdsbr /> Height: 1-3 feet
Bloom Time: June
Sun Shade: Partial Shade
Zones: 4, 5
Soil Conditions: Clay, Loam, Sand
Soil Moisture: Medium, Moist
Color: Yellow
Spacing: 1-2 feet
Description: Tufted Hair Grass 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 .