Ornamental Grasses

In the garden, ornamental grasses can “weave” an area together by adding color, structure and texture. Grasses add a gracefulness and softness not found in other plants and can be used in many styles of gardens. They are appropriate in formal, traditional, prairie, native and xeric gardens. Some of the hardiest and easiest grasses to use are natives and when placed correctly add a lot of beauty. Native grasses are low maintenance, most need only to be cut back once a year just before their flush of new growth begins in late winter or very early spring.

Native grasses are lovely mixed into shrub or flower borders and can be used in mass or singly to punctuate a bed. No plants give greater winter interest than grasses except perhaps evergreens. Many of the native grasses are quite drought tolerant once established. Many adapted ornamental grasses can be used successfully in Southeastern Colorado. Using native grasses in our landscapes not only brings a sense of place aesthetically but provides food, shelter, and habitat to many native species of wildlife, another good reason to use them in our gardens. 

Ornamental Grasses: Wolfgang Oehme and the New American Garden
By Stefan Leppert, Frances Lincoln Publishers 2009

Pocket Guide to Ornamental Grasses
Richard Darke, Timber Press 2004

Grasses: Versatile Partners for Uncommon Design
Nancy J. Ondra, Photos: Saxton Holt, Storey Publishing 2002

Ornamental Grasses for Western Gardens
Marilyn Raff, Big Earth Publishing 2005

The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses:Sedges Rushes, Restios, Cat-tails and Selected Bamboos
Rick Darke, Timber Press 1999

Landscaping with Ornamental Grasses
Fiona Gilsenan, Sunset Publishing Corp. 2002

The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses
John Greenlee, Rodale Books 1992

The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes
Rick Darke, Timber Press 2007

Achnatherum hymenoides   Indian Rice Gras.  Photo: Dr. Clinton Shock, Oregon State University Achnatherum hymenoides, Indian Rice Grass is a cool season Colorado native. Indian rice grass “wakes up” early in the spring, and therefor flowers before the heat of summer begins. The seed heads are very showy and the foliage is a medium texture. This rather erect bunch grass is xeric and reaches to about 2 feet tall. It needs a course soil but tolerates very alkaline soils. 

Big bluestem in flower SECWCD Demonstration Xeriscape Garden Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii is a Colorado native with good landscape characteristics. Big bluestem is an upright bunch grass with good fall color. It can reach up to 6 feet in flower and is drought tolerant once established. It can grow into a large clump and become a real presence in the garden.

Big  bluestem SECWCD Demonstration Xeriscape Garden

Little bluestem Photo: CSU ExtensionLittle bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, is smaller in stature than Big bluestem and only grows to about 3 feet at maturity. This warm season bunch grass tolerates many soil types and is xeric once established. It has a blue-gray cast to its erect foliage and good fall color.


Sporobolus wrightii: Giant Sacaton is one of the most graceful and dramatic of the southwest native grasses. It performs very well in southern Colorado. At maturity, with flower stalks it can reach up to 8 feet tall and almost as wide. The foliage is softly arching and because of its stature has a dramatic presence in the garden. 

Giant Sacaton, Sporobolus wrightii, Demonstration Xeriscape Garden SE CO Water Conservancy District Giant Sacaton, Sporobolus wrightii, Demonstration Xeriscape Garden SE CO Water Conservancy District

Sporobolus airiodes   Alkali dropseedSporobolus airiodes: Alkali Dropseed, is much smaller growing, reaching only to 3 feet by 3 feet. This grass is native to most of the western United States including Colorado.  Alkali dropseed and is very tolerant of alkaline soils. It has a low water requirement once established but is often found in low laying areas that collect water. This is a beautiful fine textured grass with stunning flower/seed stalk that has a pinkish tinge when ripe.

Photo: Missouri Botanic GardenSporobolus heterolepis, Prairie Dropseed is native to Colorado. Prairie dropseed is a warm season clump forming grass, It is fine textured and forms an arching mound. The flower heads rise to 36 inches tall and are graceful floating above the foliage. Prairie dropseed tolerates many types of soil, and is useful as an accent plant or grouped as a ground cover.

Switch Grass, Panicum virgatum, is a tidy, rhizomatous grass with lacy seed heads. There are several named selections including: ‘Shenandoah’ with bright red blades, ‘Cloud Nine’ with very blue-green foliage to 8 feet tall, ‘Prairie Fire’ which is slightly taller than ‘Shenandoah’ and ‘Heavy Metal’ another blue green foliaged variety. Switch grass is an upright grower with dense foliage that sparkles in sunlight.

 Photo:Mike Owsley, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service    Jimmy Carter Plant Materials CenterSwitch grass, Photo: Denver Botanic Garden Switch grass, Panicum virgatum, SE CO Water Conservancy DistrictDacotah Switch grass, Photo: West Seed Farm


 Grasses used in shrub border. Colorado Springs Utilities. Mesa Xeriscape Demonstration Garden Grasses in flower border. Colorado Springs Utilities. Mesa Xeriscape Demonstration Garden

Native grasses in “prairiescape.” Colorado Springs Utilities. Mesa Xeriscape Demonstration Garden Denver Botanic Garden

Grasses have great fall color and texture. Denver Botanic Garden SECWCD Demonstration Xeriscape Garden