Conservation grass... 09/08/98 big bluestem

The native prairie grass big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) provides fall color. Cultivars ‘Indian Warrior’ and ‘Red October’ have purple and scarlet red fall foliage respectively. Big bluestem can be identified by its three-pronged seed head.

With texture and form, native and ornamental grasses add multiple seasons of interest in the garden, whether grouped in clusters or planted singly as focal points.

They also provide fall color. Here are some recommendations from horticulturists at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach on native and ornamental grasses to consider. To have more questions answered, contact Hortline at hortline@iastate.edu or 515-294-3108.

Q: Which ornamental grasses have colorful fall foliage?

A: Native grasses with colorful fall foliage include:

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii): Cultivars ‘Indian Warrior’ and ‘Red October’ have purple and scarlet red fall foliage respectively.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum): Cultivars ‘Cloud Nine,’ ‘Dallas Blues,’ ‘Heavy Metal,’ and ‘Northwind’ have yellow fall foliage.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium): Cultivars with color include ‘Blaze’ (shades of orange, red, and purple), ‘Blue Heaven’ (burgundy red), ‘Carousel’ (copper, orange, and mahogany), ‘Jazz’ (burgundy red or purple), ‘Prairie Blues’ (shades of orange and red), ‘Prairie Munchkin’ (mix of orange and purple), ‘Standing Ovation’ (maroon to purple), and ‘The Blues’ (shades of orange and red).

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans): Cultivars ‘Indian Steel’ and ‘Sioux Blue’ turn yellow, while the foliage of ‘St. Louis’ is orange-red.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis): ‘Tara’ prairie dropseed develops an orange-red fall color.

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Non-native grasses with colorful foliage are:

Purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea),

Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra),

Chinese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis).

Q: When should I cut back my ornamental grasses?

A: Many ornamental grasses provide color, sound and movement to the winter landscape. Because of these winter features, April is the preferred time to cut back ornamental grasses in Iowa and Illinois. Cut back the grasses to within 2 to 4 inches of the ground with a hand shears, lopping shears, hedge trimmer or small chainsaw.

Q: When is the best time to dig and divide ornamental grasses?

A: Spring is the best time to dig and divide ornamental grasses. Wait until new growth appears at the base of the plants in spring. Digging and dividing well established clumps of grass can be quite challenging and may require the assistance of others.

After digging up the clump, divide it into sections with a sharp knife, spade or ax. If the central portion of the clump is dead, cut it out and discard it. Divide the outer ring of the clump into sections and replant.

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