University of Illinois Extension

Prairie Grasses with a Personality

When looking for an ornamental grass to either add to your perennial plant collection or get your collection started, there are any number of fine grasses to choose from, said Greg Stack U of I Extension horticulturist.

"Size, shape, color, and texture often play into the decision," said Stack. "Another factor that is becoming important to many gardeners is the desire to include natives into their perennial border. One of the grasses that was found in just about all of the tall grass prairies in the U.S. and a major component was big bluestem."

Big bluestem has been available to home gardeners for many years. This warm season, (meaning it tends to emerge late in the spring), tall, often five to eight feet, clump-forming grass is a great addition to the perennial garden.

In the fall this grass takes on a yellowish/orange look with the seed heads having a slightly purple hue. The seed heads have three branches and as a result been given the common name of "turkey foot" for their resemblance to the feet of this bird. All in all, a very dramatic-looking grass.

"But plant breeders have been working to give the gardener some choices from the standard species of bluestem and what they have come up with are two new big bluestem cultivars that offer a whole different look," Stack said.

The first one is a cultivar called 'Rain Dance'. This bluestem grows up to six feet tall and forms a nice loose open clump. The summer foliage is a deeper green than the species bluestem and the leaves are tipped with a red coloration. In the fall, look for the plant to turn a dark maroon. It also produces red flowers on red stems. This creates a dramatic look that signals fall in a big way.

The other new bluestem is called 'Red October'. This bluestem grows five to six feet tall and has deep green summer foliage. In the late summer, the foliage turns purple and then a vivid scarlet in autumn giving the garden some spectacular late season color.

"Both of these grasses are winter hardy to zone 3 and once established are very drought tolerant," he said. "Because of their size they make good background plants or even specimen plants in mixed borders. They tend to be clump formers which make them good to use with other plants without the fear of them taking over or becoming invasive."

Bluestem prefers a full sun location and if planted in a moist location will be considerably taller than if planted in a dry spot.

"So, if you're in the market for a native prairie grass that is distinctive from what the early settlers saw in the Great Plains, try one of these new introductions," Stack recommended.

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