For the most part, ornamental grasses are the introverts of the gardening world. It’s easy to overlook their quiet presence, but at certain times, in certain lights, they command attention.
Native grasses are relatively easy to fit into a garden because they often grow in a predictable way to a manageable size, requiring little maintenance. At most, some grasses benefit from an annual cleanup. Yet they do exhibit seasonality, with flowering stems that persist for a long time.
I’m reminded of the special attributes of native grasses every time I visit a garden that boasts established grasses. Some grasses stand out for their symmetry, others for their quirkiness. Grasses are good for erosion control, for wildlife food and shelter, and for catching light at certain times of day.
A clump of purple three-awn, for instance, can look like a swath of very fine-textured beige or purple fluff. The awns (the parts of the “flower” that create the fluffy appearance on the flowering stem) catch light in a magical way. The leaves are green and the awns are purple-tinged much of the year, but they really stand out in the winter, when low-angled sunlight strikes them and there is less visual competition from other plants.
Purple three-awn grows in full sun, and it is drought tolerant but can take occasional water. It can reach 1.5-3.5 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Because its texture is so fine, purple three-awn can be planted in masses or as a specimen plant. The older awns can get tangled in animal fur, so be careful not to let your pets romp in it, and remove old flowering stalks as needed. In addition, it can reseed itself, so some weeding is called for if you want to restrict its spread.
Other native grasses
Another quirkily distinctive drought-tolerant grass for full sun is variously known as eyelash grass, caterpillar grass or, most commonly, blue grama. The more colorful names refer to the appearance of the flowering heads, often held horizontally atop the flowering stalks.
Four or five species of butterflies use blue grama as a host plant, and it attracts various other insects and birds. To find out which species of wildlife might be attracted to your native plants, visit Calscape.org. A cultivar called Blonde Ambition grows 2.5-3 feet tall and wide, which is a little larger than the typical blue grama.
Deergrass is perhaps the most widely recognized and easy-to-grow native grass. This symmetrical fountain-shaped grass looks best as a specimen plant. Give it enough space to spread out once it reaches its full size, up to 5 feet tall and 3-6 feet wide. It looks particularly dramatic against a background of dark-green shrubs or a dark fence.
In the summer, birds enjoy the seeds of deergrass. Best grown in full sun, deergrass tolerates some shade but may grow more slowly or unevenly. It is drought tolerant but can survive at the edge of watered areas as well. Although it often gets cut back to an unsightly mound in commercial landscapes, deergrass does not actually need any maintenance. Fastidious gardeners, however, sometimes run a rake through the clump to pull out dead leaves.
California boasts many more native grasses, including a fragrant one called vanilla grass. If your local independent nursery does not carry native grasses, you can often special-order them. Of course, it’s always best to see mature plants in person before adding them to your garden.
A good place to see them is at this spring’s native garden tours. The local Going Native Garden Tour, organized by the California Native Plant Society, is scheduled May 2. To register and for more information, visit gngt.org. When you go, pay attention to the native grasses.