Extension Educator, Horticulture
We all need a place to go that brings us back to what is really important in
our lives. I can stand in a prairie with the grasses dancing all around me
and somehow all those things that seemed important an hour ago just don't
matter that much. Perhaps the insignificant brain baggage hitchhikes out on
the wind blowing through my ears. Many of us don't have the space to have a prairie at our own homes, however many of the native grasses can be welcome additions in the landscape. And perhaps give us a bit of the open spirit of the prairie.
Native grasses offer an amazing diversity of leaf textures, colors and
flowers. Grasses provide interest all year. Many grasses flower in late
summer when most other plants are fading away. The flowers can be used in fresh and dried flower arrangements or left for winter interest. Grasses
also provide winter cover and food for wildlife. Hopefully by using native
plants we can cut down on the many exotic invaders we bring into our gardens and natural areas.
Grasses can be used in a variety of ways such as in a flower border, as
edging or as background or screen. Generally native grasses are tough plants
accustomed to our extremes in weather and have few insect and disease
problems. One of our native grasses, little bluestem, Schizachyrium
scoparium, has bluish stems that change from dark red to purple to bronze
colored through the fall and winter. It still looks beautiful in my garden
right now. It stays upright and doesn't seem to flop like some grasses
subjected to Illinois wind, rain and snow. The 2 to 3 feet tall perennial is
useful in the flower garden or as a ground cover in a naturalized garden.
It is drought tolerant and winter hardy. 'The Blues' is a nice cultivar
selected for its silvery blue leaves.
Big bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, looks very similar with its bluish stems, but as its name implies it reaches a height of 4 to 6 feet. Its flowers
appear in August and September and look like a turkey foot hence its other
name, Turkeyfoot. The leaves turn a marvelous coppery color in the fall.
Big bluestem is effective as a specimen plant or as a quick screen.
Another exceptionally fine grass is switch grass, Panicum virgatum. The
leaves can be quite variable in color from bright green to silvery blue.
Size may also vary from 4-8 feet tall. Like many of the North American
grasses, switch grass is a warm season grass that awakens slowly in spring.
'Shenandoah' has a deep burgundy fall color. The leaves of 'Hanse Herms' are bright green in summer but in August they turn a bright red.
The delicate panicles of switch grass flowers appear as a purple haze over
the leaves. 'Cloud Nine' has particularly fluffy flowers and is quite tall
at eight feet. 'Dallas Blues' has red to mauve flowers. The cultivars don't seem to reseed the way the straight species does. 'Heavy Metal‚' sure to be a hit with the teenagers in the family, is a good garden companion standing
through rain and wind. 'Prairie Sky' seems to do nothing but flop over in my garden. Its next destination is the compost pile.
If you would like to take a guided trip back into time when prairies covered
Illinois, come to the program on Saturday March 16 at 10:00 am at Allerton
Park Visitor Center in Monticello. Bill McLain of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources will talk on prairies and the historic fires in the
Midwest (from the 1670s to 1880s) that shaped them. To register contact the Visitors Center at 217-762-2721 or 217-244-1035.