Native grasses are an excellent choice for low-maintenance, attractive, and wildlife-friendly plants to add to your landscape. Their beauty is often more subtle than the color splashes of perennials and annuals but can add amazing depth and interest to the gardener’s palette. There are so many species of native grasses to choose from, and each one brings differing structure, texture, and color to the garden. Grasses give multi-season interest to the landscape. Perennial grasses mostly emerge in the spring and are at their peak in summer and tend to be happiest in full sun. Persistent seed heads provide structure and movement to the garden in the fall and well into the winter.
Beyond beauty and versatility, native grasses provide sustenance and cover for wildlife. In spring, grasses are used extensively in nest-building by birds and small mammals. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) has many small seeds and tall cover, which makes it excellent as a forage and habitat for game and songbirds, and other animals. Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), which grows throughout the South Carolina Botanical Garden, attracts many beneficial insects, including ladybirds. Its clumping habit makes it an excellent wildlife cover and source for nest material for birds and small mammals. Our state native grass, Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) has benefits for many bees, butterflies, and other pollinators since it provides habitat for over-wintering eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults. There is a whole group of butterflies, the grass skippers, who rely on native grasses to support their lifecycles. For example, little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is the host plant for 14 species of grass skippers. More generally, over 100 species of butterfly rely on native grasses as their host plant.
Once established, grasses require very little attention from the gardener. They develop very extensive root systems that allow them to thrive when other plants can’t. These fibrous root systems are excellent for holding soil in place, building organic matter, and increasing water infiltration. If the correct plant is chosen for the conditions, additional water or fertilizer should be unnecessary. Stroll through the SCBG to see grasses at work in the landscape, particularly along the Natural Heritage Garden Trail. If you would like to add some excellent grasses to your garden, shop our fall plant sale in September. For extensive detail on many native grasses, including specific cultivars and their characteristic, see HGIC 1178, Ornamental Grasses and Grass-Like Plants.
Our South Carolina Botanical Garden Nursery will be offering the following grasses for sale in the fall:
- Andropogon geradii ‘Blackhawks’
- Andropogon ternarius
- Chasmanthium latifolium
- Muhlenbergia capillaris
- Muhlenbergia lindheimerii
For more information about the plant sale, see South Carolina Botanical Garden Plant Sale.
To support the South Carolina Botanical Garden by becoming a member, visit Giving to Clemson: The South Carolina Botanical Garden.