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Finding a niche for native grasses

M.G. Gallagher
Vail, CO, Colorado

The airy effect of baby’s breath is also found in flower arrangements in the form of one of our choicest native grasses ” Indian rice grass, which is a great native landscape feature.

A fairly common wild grass, Achnatherum (Oryzopsis) hymenoides is still underused in local landscapes. Yet it’s easy to grow at high elevation, needs no extra water and it is not invasive.

Many of the wild grasses in the area are not native, and are in fact, quite weedy. Oftentimes, local gardens are seeded with aggressive seed mixes and, over time, the wild grasses established themselves throughout the wild and in your gardens. These mixes include aggressive grasses from other areas and other countries. Many of the non-local plants displace native grasses and aren’t as compatible with or beneficial to the local ecosystem as the native grasses are.



Imported weed grasses are out-competing the rare Harrington’s beardtongue (penstemon) in Eagle County, but non-native plants beating out native plants isn’t always the case. Many beautiful local and regional grasses are vigorous competitors, which is especially important when it comes to reclamation and erosion control.

Less aggressive Indian rice grass is an early season grass, drying out and going to seed early to middle summer, depending on locale. It is attractive both in its green state and its dry state. The seedheads form early and are part of the landscape texture early in the growing season.



Some wild grasses are planted because they look nice early in the season, as well as when they change color in the fall. Big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass (not to be confused with Indian rice grass) and other wild grasses add color, especially those that turn orange and red come September and October.

It is my personal opinion that while fountain grasses look good, they need the right setting. Some landscapers believe fountain grasses look better in settings close to water features and I tend to agree.

There are a number of other oat, wheat, rye, fescue, and all kinds of very attractive wild grasses that enhance foothill (sagebrush, juniper and pinyon) and montane landscapes. We have true high desert conditions in this region and many low-water grasses, while ornamental, are not technically fountain grasses.



Pair native rice grass with sagebrush and rabbitbrush for a subtle to dramatic visual effect. Sagebrush is an easy shrub that does not need extra watering after it’s established. For a southwest look, place it near red and blue penstemons and other late season reds and blues. Sagebrush also takes well to light pruning, especially shaping. It’s not only appropriate to clean out dead growth on the plant, but its healthy for the plant. Any of the sagebrushes I have ever cleaned up, kept the shape for the most part. It’s also appropriate to cut the seed stalks off anytime if you like. Some people like the seed formations, while others don’t. Cut them anytime ” you can shear them off quickly to help maintain a neat appearance, without taking away the shape of the shrub.

We’ll have more on native shrubs soon, including how to place them for good visual effect, which is important with shrubs like sagebrush.

Until next time, remember there are many natives plants that can prove to be the best ornamental selections for your landscapes.


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