Fall is for Prairie Grasses, a Southern Tradition
By Rick Huffman
As summer wanes into fall, our southeastern landscapes light up with native grasses that begin the seasonal transition that has been with us for thousands of years. From August to November these native grasses simply glow with the low-slung sun behind them. Historically known as Piedmont Prairies, the prairie belt stretched from North Carolina to Alabama where broad swaths of savannahs and open grasslands drifted across the region. Just imagine the time when Buffalo wandered through open grasslands in the upstate – a time before European settlement and subsequently, fire suppression. Today, without large-scale burns across the landscape, these prairie grasses are now remnants – left to inhabit only old fields and roadsides where open, sunny, and dry conditions are found.
Benefits of Grasses
Native grasses are as functional as they are beautiful. Appreciation and application of these wonderful grasses begins with an understanding of the role they play in natural landscapes. These native grasses are ecologically referred to as ‘pioneer species’ because they arrive first after disturbance or clearing. These plants thrive on poor soils, full sun, disturbance, dry tough conditions, and most importantly, they form the basis for land regeneration. With deep roots, native grasses serve as anchors holding exposed soils together. These drought resistant grasses are excellent at erosion control and rebuilding poor soils through biomass accumulation which paves the way for organic soils that support other species to establish.
Designing with Native Grasses
When applied to designed landscapes, grasses can provide soft colors and striking form to provide a visual alternative to the typical traditional shrub-centric landscape. Some of the grasses are tall and slender, while others stay low with sprays of color and arching form. These attributes allow grasses to serve our landscapes in many ways – borders, screening, ground cover masses, accent specimens, and holding steep slopes. In the winter, when the green has left the landscape, native grasses take on a light tan color and continue to have a positive visual impact throughout the season. Our grasses serve birds and wildlife by providing cover and a food source in seeds that last into the winter.
Once established, native grasses are easy to maintain. If established in a prairie meadow, they are generally cut back twice a year – once in the late spring to discourage annual weed pressure and again in late fall or early winter. The main goal is to help keep the native grasses open, sunny, and dry.
Let’s explore some of our favorites and how they can serve in the landscape
Pink Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) – Pink Muhly is a medium sized grass 1-3’ in height with plumes of smokey pink flowers in the fall. These coastal grasses are adaptable in the Piedmont and the grass blades have been traditionally used to make baskets in the low country. These beautiful grasses are drought tolerant and can be used as border, masses, or as accents in the fall landscape.
Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum) – Switch Grass is an upright plant 1-5’ in height and 3-5’ spread with flower masses that display colors from purple to white depending on cultivars. They have become popular in public landscape because they are tough and versatile.
Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) – Little Bluestem is an upright form grass 1-3’ in height with green to blue stems and small white flowers. Little Bluestem can serve the landscape as a border, as the matrix in a meadow, or as individual specimens that can light up with fall color and hold its tan appearance all winter.
Purple Love Grass (Eragrostis specatbalis) Wow, Purple Love Grass is a real star in the fall landscape. It feels like a Jimmie Hendrix song, ‘Purple Haze’. It grows 1 -3’ with beautiful masses of flowers creating the mist of color along our roadsides. I love this grass along the roadsides on my morning/afternoon commute. This grass is excellent for tough areas as it is drought tolerant and can take abuse. We love it as a border, as a mass, in planters or as dried arrangements.
So go ahead and embrace the past and enhance your landscape with these historic prairie grasses. They are functional, beautiful, and create a sense of place here in the Piedmont. Enjoy the fall and go native!!