Native & invasive ornamental grasses

by Caroline Brown

Landscaping and gardening with ornamental grasses is hot. Ornamental grasses provide home gardens with nesting sites, food, and cover for birds and other animals; pleasing and unusual texture and dimensionality; and garden interest in all four seasons. Some varieties can be used to plant lawns that require less mowing and water.

As their popularity grows, the invasive nature of some ornamental grasses is becoming a problem. If you’re planting grasses this spring, try to find native, non-invasive varieties. It’s amazing how often I see invasive plants, including grasses, at reputable nurseries. A lot of people probably don’t care, but I tend to assume that a gardener who bothers to patronize a real nursery instead of his or her local big-box gardening center actually cares about what they’re planting. Don’t assume that just because a “good” nursery carries a plant that it’s not invasive. Unfortunately it isn’t always so.

Some invasive ornamental grasses commonly found in nurseries are:

  • Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana, C. jubata)–This stuff is everywhere. If I had grown up in the kind of neighborhood that had a homeowner’s agreement, there would have only been one rule: All homeowners must plant a mound of pampas grass beside their mailbox. Pampas seeds and spreads prolifically and is invasive in California and Hawaii, and is banned from sale in South Africa and New Zealand.
  • Maidengrass (Miscanthus spp.)–It’s really unbelievable how many so many species of Miscanthus in the nursery trade; M. sinensis seems to me the most common and there are a billion different cultivars. I’ve read various advice that some species and/or cultivars are invasive and others aren’t: variegated ones are a problem; antique species aren’t invasive; depends on when in the growing season that they bloom and drop seed, etc. Personally, that’s too much to information for me to sift through. I realize that it’s an important landscaping plant, but I just wouldn’t buy Miscanthus spp. anymore. I’m sure many will disagree.
  • Reed canary grass or ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea)–in the wild P. arundinacea is a wetland invasive; a couple of white-striped cultivars are sold in nurseries.
  • Fountain grass (Pennisetum sp.) Like maidengrass, there’s a lot of hearsay on what’s invasive or what’s not. XYZ species is OK; ABC is not; It’s OK as long as you cut it back before it seeds; on and on. I’m too lazy–I just don’t buy it.

Don’t forget that invasive is in the eye of the beholder; in other words, what’s native and lovely in one growing zone might be invasive somewhere else. An example of this is the native grass river oats, Chasmathium latifolium; there are many other examples as well. Do your research before you buy. A lot nursery owners and workers that I’ve talked to don’t know or don’t have time to find out the answers. So I’d ask a local extension agent, call your local Master Gardener hotline, or look it up on the Internet–but be sure to use a non-commercial source SPECIFIC TO YOUR AREA such as a university with a cooperative extension/outreach program. Rick Darke’s excellent volumes, The Pocket Guide to Ornamental Grasses and The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes are great resources as is the venerable Bill Cullina’s Native Ferns, Moss, and Grasses: From Emerald Carpet to Amber Wave, Serene and Sensuous Plants for the Garden.

Here are some native non-invasives that I like:

  • Feather reed grass ‘Karl Foerster’ (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’). This upright grass is tolerant of a wide range of conditions and rarely self-sows.
  • Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). The foliage of this prairie grass is various shades of gray-blue-green and turns orange, red or tan in the fall.
  • Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris). I love this stuff (photo above). It’s like fluffy pink clouds.
  • Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pennsylvanica). This sedge would be good to use for a path or lawn replacement. It’s short clusters spread slowly, forming a thick, lush carpet (see photo below).
    Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). Ah, switchgrass. Remember when Resident Bush actually said the word ‘switchgrass’ in his 2006 State of the Union speech? I thought my head was going to spin right off my neck. Switchgrass is a tall and tufted native that’s highly touted as a potential biofuel crop. (Because, as George so deftly put it, “America is addicted to oil.” Thanks for the insight, shrub!)
  • Buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides). What’s not to love? Another prairie grass, Buffalograss is short and drought-resistant, and would be an earth-friendly alternative to a traditional lawn.

Photo credits


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23 Responses to “Native & invasive ornamental grasses”

  1. i can’t keep these grasses straight but I love them all. the one in your picture, oh what a beauty, I can’t grow in my zone. MY ZONE SUCKS SOMETIMES!

  2. Just lovely C. I think this would be a great way to keep weeds at bay, would it not?

    Gardening via blogland may be a challenge, but it still can be rewarding. ;) I always learn something new, stopping by EFG.

  3. Thank you for this! I’ve considered ornamental grasses before and never thought that this would be an issue.

  4. Very good information; as you observe, things aren’t always invasive everywhere. Pampas grass, I can’t even get to flower here–the climate is just a bit too cool in winter. And the pink muhly grass…I lust after it, but just a bit too cold-sensitive for here, sadly.

  5. Hi, I’m new here and this is nice, thanks for your blog, truly.

    I’m sitting here this morning with my third cup of coffee reading and when you mentioned “shrub” I almost spat out the coffee for laughing because that’s exactly what my husband calls our present president.

    I did want to ask here about the “Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris)” and what I want to know is, do you know where it’s a native of? (I’m not sure how gramitically correct that is, but there it is anyway.)

    We live in (rural) NY and I’ve never seen that one but I’d love to see it here around my house somewhere.

    Again, thanks for being here and if you like, you might want to check out my second blog, (I won’t post a link but sorta and if it’s inappropriate here, please delete it.) it’s called A Thyme of Peas.com. It’s not real focused and it’s been changing a bit since it’s fairly new, but my husband wrote an article about the “shrub” you might enjoy. The blog is really dedicated to looking at life, earth, everything as part of a whole and working towards healing – everything. :)

    That’s why sites like yours interest and excite me when I find someone talking about many things that are close to my heart. Growing things is very much a part of the whole and too, about new beginnings, learning and being involved in a very personal way with Mother Earth.

    Wishing you peace, love and understanding and a beautiful day today and every day.

  6. Hi RubyShooz, thanks for coming by. Thanks for the compliments and I’ll stop by your blogs as well.

    Pink Muhly Grass is native to Florida and can grow in Zones 7-11.

    We owe the nickname “shrub” to Shrub himself although Molly Ivins popularized it with her book of that name I believe. W. named his first oil company after himself–Arbusto Energy–because Arbusto means bush or shrub in Spanish.

  7. Here in Maine Deschampsia cespitosa is listed as invasive (although I love those words and now that combination will run through my head all afternoon :-)

    It’s ironic, because I got “Seedheads in the Garden” by Noel Kingsbury and it seems that every third page there’s a mention of D cespitosa because its seedheads are so lovely in frost. (Seriously — if you go to Amazon and use their “search this book” feature, you’ll see exactly what I’m saying.)

    Unfortunately the garden I have doesn’t really lend itself to ornamental grasses, although I love that they are being used in architectural plantings now.

  8. Just came across your blog and I love it. I’m currently setting up a mostly native garden in Australia but was thinking of getting some miscanthus in for variety… may rethink that now.

  9. Very good topic. I have some Karl Forester and love it. But it’s about the only ornamental grass that will grow here — at least one that survives our winters. I love Pampas Grass and Penesetum and Maidenhair but they would only be annuals up here … not to worry though — I haven’t planted them :) I did grow some lovely blue grass (would have to look it up for the correct name) and it was gorgeous though didn’t last over winter either. Good old Karl is a hardy fellow!

    Diane

  10. About the only grass that seems to do well in my garden is crab grass. I grow miscanthus. It is not invasive here, but seems to get top heavy and falls over. Blue fescue is nice, but seems to be short lived. I have tried a few other types, but they always seem to die out. I am on the border of USDA Zones 5 and 6. Maybe its our soils here, which tend to be clay and pretty heavy.

  11. I have a question. Our little blue stem has been in for about 4 years and has only headed out once two years ago. Is this normal or is it lacking something? We live in northeastern Colorado on the plains where typically it is pretty hot and dry. The winters are not as cold as they used to be. Can you help?

  12. just a day fnishes, at the time of evening when sun shines.
    that time is immenise heartable in the location of grasses and forests,
    I like the place where the work related to ecofriendly besides of plants, every humain beings i want to inform to take the intrest about plant for their care. and know the importance .

  13. Caroline,
    I found your blog when researching Muhly Grass and was glad to find it not invasive. Nice post on grasses.
    Donna

  14. Would you please tell me what the name of this purple ornamental grass is?

    Thank you,
    Loretta

  15. HI Loretta, if you mean the one in the picture, it’s called muhly grass, (Muhlenbergia capillaris).

  16. Good article. Just wanted to add that ‘Miscanthus sinensis’ is definitely invasive in NC and VA, especially in the southern appalachian mountains. I keep seeing it planted in new developments near highways and it makes me cringe. I wish I could go afford to drive around and spray all of it with roundup. The fluffy seeds find their way everywhere and I’ve seen huge infestations in fields and cutovers that obviously came from a single ornamental planting across the road. Please be careful what you plant!

  17. Any idea where I can get the muhly grass?. I’m in southern Florida.
    Thanks, Susan

  18. Caroline,
    Awesome post. I live in Australia and use grasses in my landscape project extensively (due to their drought tolerance). Very much enjoyed your informative post on Muhlenbergia capillaris. Nice one.

  19. Wow, didn’t know that Pampas grass was such a pain. We love it in my area. You’re right that many plant species are invasive in non native regions. We will have to be on the lookout for that.

  20. I’ve never considered having ornamental grasses in my garden, but some grasses are just lovely like the one on your picture here, maybe I should try having them in my little garden. Thanks for the information regarding grasses.

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