Friday, June 17, 2011

Texas Native Grasses for the Landscape

Ornamental grasses help bring butterflies to the yard and can serve as great accents to a landscape. These three native grasses all have interesting histories and descriptions. They grow well in many areas, but specifically these three are to be used in a Texas yard. For the planting, growing, care, and history of these grasses, read on.

Elymus canadensis
Common Name: Canadian Wildrye, Canada Wildrye, Prairie Wildrye, Nodding Wildrye
Lifespan: Short-lived perennial
Description: Growing 2 to 4 feet high, this ornamental grass has arching stems and a spike-like seed head of oat-looking seeds. Leaves are deciduous, green, and linear. Flat leaves will grow from the stem’s base. Canadian wildrye’s claw-looking auricles form from a yellow or light green collar. The leaves and stems of this grass’s crown are coarse and have some fire resistance. Blooms are yellow and inconspicuous, arriving in late spring.
Planting Guide: Elymus canadensis is hardy in USDA hardiness zones 3 through 8. This grass prefers being planted in sun or partial shade with moist well-drained soil. It has some drought tolerance. It is classified as winter hardy. Soil should be between 5 and 7.9 pH with at least 90 frost-free days for best growth. There is a medium salinity tolerance.
Propagation: Canadian wildrye propagation is by root division or by seed. For division, it should be divided in the fall. For seed propagation, do a cold-moist stratification of the seed two weeks prior to planting in the fall. Seed should be dispersed onto the soil and not buried as it needs the sunlight to germinate.
History: This has been used for erosion control and in some seeding mixes where there needs to be quick development. It provides cover and nesting to wildlife and has fair use as a wildlife food. Early plants can be decent forage for livestock; however older plants aren’t as palatable. It has little protein but does well for energy.
            It is attractive to butterflies as it is a larval host to the Zabulon skipper (Poanes zabulon) butterfly.
Warnings: There is a potential disease problem with Canadian wildrye. Leaf rust, stem rust and ergot are all potential issues the gardener should be aware of.
Distribution: Elymus canadensis is found in AZ, AR, CA, CO, CT, DE, ID, IL, IN, IA, KS, KY, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, MO, MT, NE, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, NC, ND, OH, OK, OR, PA, RI, SD, TN, TX, UT, VT, VA, WA, WV, WI, WY, and DC.

Muhlenbergia lindheimeri
Common Name: Lindheimer’s Muhly, Big Muhly
Lifespan: Perennial
Description: This ornamental grass grows 2 to 5 feet high in a fountain-like growth pattern. With silvery seed heads and fine airy foliage, Lindheimer’s muhly has blue-green or gray-green semi-evergreen basal leaves and lace-like fall panicles. Blooms appear May through November and are a white inflorescence.
Planting Guide: Muhlenbergia lindheimeri is hardy in USDA hardiness zones 7 through 11. This particular grass prefers sunny conditions and an alkaline soil under 7.2 pH.  Well-drained moist or dry soil with either a rocky or limestone base is best. It is both cold and heat tolerant.
Propagation: Lindheimer’s muhly is propagated by seeds that are collected in December. It tends to germinate easily.
History: Lindheimer’s muhly is named for Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg, Henry Muhlenberg, and Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer. The Muhlenbergs worked with many European botanists while Lindheimer has been called the Father of Texas Botany. Henry Muhlenberg is credited for 150 plant species named and classified while Lindheimer is credited with several hundred plant species being discovered.
            It is used for livestock and wildlife forage and as a nesting source for birds. It has a high resistance to deer.
Warnings: If you cut back the foliage during the cold season it could be slow in recovering. The foliage is dormant in the cold season and cutting is not necessary. Simply break off stalks once the flowers are gone and the stalks are brittle. Also remove any dead leaves by combing the plant with a leaf rake.
Distribution: Muhlenbergia lindheimeri is found in TX.


Achnatherum hymenoides
Common Name: Indian Ricegrass, Sandgrass, Indian Millet
Synonyms: Stipa hymenoides, Eriocama cuspidata, Oryzopsis hymenoides
Lifespan: Perennial
Description: This grass grows 1 to 2 feet high with sage-green leaves and ivory seed heads. Leaves will get tan during its dormancy. Foliage is wiry in appearance. There are yellow or green blooms in an inflorescence from June through September. Leaves are slender and rolled. Flowers are at the end of very thin branches. Black or brown seeds are hairy and either round or elongated.
Planting Guide: Achnatherum hymenoides is hardy in USDA hardiness zones of 3 through 8. Plant it in a sunny location with a dry sandy or rocky soil. It is drought tolerant and heat tolerant. Indian ricegrass needs to be planted under 1/2 inch to 1 inch of soil if soil is fine to medium textured and from 1 to 3 inches deep if it is coarse textured soil. Soil should be between 6.6 and 8.6 pH and have a minimum of 90 frost-free days to have the best growth.
Propagation: Indian ricegrass is propagated by seed that has been scarified by either mechanical means or by H2SO4. Scarification helps in germination. The seed should be planted 1 to 2 inches into the soil. The hard coating of the seed helps its dormancy and is why seeding can take up to two years to be established.
History: It is both wildlife forage and a livestock feed. The plant is palatable and nutritious food source for cattle, elk, sheep, deer and antelope. Indian ricegrass is a larval host for skipper butterflies and attracts birds for the seed.
            Native Americans used the ground seed of Achnatherum hymenoides to make flour. This flour was mixed with water and made a nutritious mush food source.
Warnings: This is a short-lived grass and will not tolerate winter floods, poor-drained soils, or shade.
Distribution: Achnatherum hymenoides is found in AZ, AR, CA, CO, ID, KS, MN, MO, MT, NE, NV, NM, ND, OK, OR, SD, TX, UT, WA, WI, and WY.


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