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Native Grasses, Rushes, & Sedges

These are only some of the native plants you could choose for your landscape- check with local gardeners, nurseries, and other plant experts for more!  See the Resources section on our Native Plants page for some good places to start.

As a point of interest, we also mention how Native Americans and pioneers used some of these plants for food or medicine.  However, this is not meant as a promotion of their use in this way today.  Historical records may be inaccurate or unclear, and the reader should not interpret this information as being an endorsement of that use being safe. 

Each plant is linked to its profile at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.  All links will open in a new window.

Bluestem, big (Andropogon gerardii)
This species once dominated our tallgrass prairies.  It grows in large clumps in a variety of soil conditions.  The blue-green leaves it develops in May grow up to 2' long and take on a red-bronze cast after frost.  On tall stalks that often top 9', the small purplish flowers bloom August to September in a three-part spike, giving this species its other common name, “turkey-foot grass.” Because of its height, this species should be used as a background plant or screen in mass plantings or sunny gardens.  If not used sparingly in prairie plantings, it can out-compete other nearby species.  Big bluestem is also a good accent plant in a perennial border.  With its deep rooting structure, which may extend 12' deep, it is effective at controlling erosion.  This grass spreads by seed and slowly by underground roots, although once established it may spread quickly and overrun small gardens.  Its bronze fall color persists into winter and looks wonderful against the snow.  Big bluestem was used medicinally by Native Americans to treat digestive problems.  It is effective in both fresh and dried flower arrangements.

Bluestem, little (Andropogon scoparius)
Little bluestem is another clump-forming member of the tallgrass prairie.  It prefers sandy, open conditions but will tolerate almost any soil except an extremely wet one.  This grass typically grows to 2–4' high in dense clusters.  The foliage changes from light to dark blue-green and finally becomes a beautiful, deep bronze-orange in the fall after frost.  Little bluestem holds this color to varying degrees throughout the winter.  Like other warm-season grasses, little bluestem flowers from August to October.  The flowers are scattered along the upper parts of the vertical stems.  They mature in fluffy seedheads that create a feathery, delicate look which is spectacular when backlit by the late afternoon sun.  It should be planted in masses for the most dramatic effect, and can also be used in border or rock gardens.  This species is easily propagated by seed and division.  Like many other prairie grasses, it is effective in erosion control, with a root system that can extend 5–6' deep.  It is an excellent food and cover source for birds and other small mammals.  This grass looks simply wonderful against the snow.

Bottlebrush grass (Hystrix patula)
This woodland grass can be found in a variety of soil types and moisture situations from moist to quite dry.  Bottlebrush grass can grow to 5' tall and will bloom from July to September.  Its green, showy, bristly seedheads appear on 4–10" elongated spikes held 1–2' above the foliage.  When mature they turn a pleasing straw color and they can persist through November.  This grass is a good accent for shady garden borders and is most effective when planted in groups.  The seedheads, if cut when first mature, are beautiful in fresh or dried arrangements.

Grass, ear-leaved brome (Bromus latiglumis)
This leafy, robust grass grows 4–6’ tall and is characterized by large gracefully nodding seedheads.  In nature it can be found in floodplains and moist woods.  Little flaps, or “ears”, protrude from the base of each leaf blade, giving the plant its common name.  Plant it as a backdrop for shorter species or to add interest at the edge of a pond, as it will tolerate moister soils.

Grass, fowl-manna (Glyceria striata)
Although commonly found in wet hollows in woodlands, fowl-manna grass is tolerant of a broad range of moisture and soil conditions.  The narrow leaves of this grass are two-ranked, meaning they come off the stem in the same plane.  This aspect of the leaves, combined with the delicate arching seedheads, give a wispy look to this smaller grass, which typically only reaches 1–3' tall.  It is a great choice for a moist or wet, shady area in your landscape and its sweet seeds are favored by wildlife.

Grass, long-awned wood (Brachyelytrum erectum)
Often encountered in upland woods, this grass is named for the long bristles (awns) that make up its sleek arching seedhead.  Its broad leaves, held perpendicular to the stem, can add an interesting texture to either a woodland setting or a perennial border.  Growing up to 2' tall, this grass is very shade tolerant and can also thrive in dry conditions.

Hardstem bulrush (Scirpus acutus, Schoenoplectus acutus)
Hardstem bulrush grows in wet soils and shallow water, usually less than 5' deep, at the edges of lakes and ponds.  It may also occasionally be found in deeper water and reaches heights of 5–8'.  This bulrush produces its most striking effect when massed on shores and pond edges.  The delicate, attractive seedhead matures to a deep golden-brown slightly below the top of the dark green, upright stem.  Plant this bulrush with other marsh species such as cattail and wool-grass.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Indian grass, another important member of the tallgrass prairie, grows in both wet and dry conditions in full sun.  It is a beautiful warm-season grass whose leaf color ranges from light green to gray-green to bluish and typically occurs in dense tufts.  The foliage grows to 2' or taller if given fertile soils and good moisture, and the flowers and mature seedheads stand 2–5' above the foliage.  The 6­­–10" glossy seedheads become feathery as they mature and change to golden-bronze in late summer and fall.  In winter the color changes to yellow-orange.  This grass can be used for erosion control or in mass plantings.  Because the tough, complex root system makes it difficult to divide, it is best to propagate this species from seed.  Its fall and winter colors are a nice backdrop for a perennial border and it is an excellent species to use in fresh and dried flower arrangements. 

Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha)

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata)
Prairie cordgrass is a primary grass of the Midwestern tallgrass prairies where it prefers wet soils and full sun.  The roots of this species may extend as deep as 10', making it difficult to move once established.  It grows to 6' tall in ideal conditions and aggressively spreads by many strong rhizomes.  These rhizomes bind soil very effectively, and may crowd out other less aggressive species. Spartina is a good selection to protect against erosion in areas such as riverbanks where soils are expected to be wet. It is drought-tolerant once established, and in dry gardens will spread more slowly, rarely reaching more than 3' tall.  This species has sharp-edged, glossy, green leaves that arch gracefully and ripple beautifully in the wind; handle them carefully to avoid being cut.  The leaves turn golden-yellow in the fall and hold their graceful arch, creating a pretty picture even in winter.  This grass is best used next to water where it can provide good wildlife habitat.  The tough blades were used as thatch and fuel by Native Americans and pioneers.  This plant should be propagated by rhizomes, as viable seed production is rare.  The seeds are borne on one side of the stem like a toothbrush and this distinctive seedhead is effective in both fresh and dried arrangements.

Purple lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis)
This grass is adapted to dry, open sites where it can cover large areas. Its showy, red-purple flower clusters account for more than half the 24" height of the plant.  The species is striking when planted in large masses that emphasize its airy, delicate seed clusters. It blooms August to October and matures to a soft cream color. The foliage is tight and compact and turns reddish in fall. The mature seedhead can detach and display the character of its other common name, “tumble grass.” This is an excellent accent plant. It can be used in borders or planted against a darker background to emphasize its soft flower clusters. This species can be used in both fresh and dried arrangements.

Rush, path (Juncus tenuis)
In nature this rush is commonly found along trails through meadows or prairies.  As its name indicates, path rush is tolerant of trampling and soil compaction so it will survive in busier areas of the garden, such as along a path or around stepping-stones.  A fairly short rush, reaching only 8–18" tall, it is highly adaptable and will grow in almost any soil type or moisture level.  The small seedhead is held above narrow tubular leaves that are borne only on the lower part of the stem.

Rush, soft-stemmed (Juncus effusus)
Soft-stemmed rush has hollow stems with no leaves and it grows in robust clumps up to 3’ tall.  The stem gradually tapers to a pointed tip, below which the seedhead is borne directly on the side of the stem.  It is a frequent inhabitant of wetlands in Southeast Michigan and, although it prefers wetter soils, it is tolerant of drying out occasionally.

Sedge, awl-fruited (Carex stipata)
A common wetland species, this sedge is characterized by thick, spongy stems and thick seedheads that turn from yellow-green to dark brown by fall.  The beaked fruits project out at all angles, giving a spiky appearance to the seedhead.  The wide leaves are clumped together at the base and reach almost the same height as the seedhead at 1–3' tall.  This plant is a good choice for the edge of a pond or a wetter area of the garden. 

Sedge, fox (Carex vulpinoidea)
This sedge is often encountered in both wet meadows and roadside swales.  The brownish seedheads have a soft appearance somewhat resembling a fox’s tail, with the narrow leaves radiating out along the lower half of the stem.  Fox sedge is a tough species and, once established, can tolerate some drying out.  It can reach heights of 1–3' and is a good candidate for that difficult area of the garden where other plants have not survived. 

Sedge, fringed (Carex crinita)
Fringed sedge may be found in open marshes or in wet depressions in woodland settings.  It will grow well in both sun and shade, but must have adequate moisture.  This plant grows to 2–3' tall and the long, drooping seedheads make it a particularly attractive plant for the garden or wetland area.  Fine bristles sticking out of the seedhead give it a fringed appearance. 

Sedge, graceful (Carex gracillima)
This sedge is common in woodlands of Southeast Michigan.  Long, slender seedheads look like woodland jewels as they dangle from the 2–3’ tall stems.  The narrow leaves add to the subtly beguiling aspect of the graceful sedge.  It does not make a strong statement alone in the garden and is best used as an accent plant or seated in groups. 

Sedge, Gray’s (Carex grayi)
Gray’s sedge is usually found in deciduous woods and will do best when planted in partial or full shade.  Its unusual seedhead is shaped like the mace of medieval battles and is sure to be noticed by garden visitors.  Since it is fairly short in stature, only 1–2' tall, it can be placed toward the front of a perennial boarder. 

Sedge, long-beaked (Carex sprengelii)
A woodland sedge not frequently encountered in nature, this plant is tolerant of very shady conditions.  Use its bright yellow-green foliage to draw attention to an unnoticed corner of your garden.  This plant, reaching 1–2' tall, has flowerheads that stand straight up when they first emerge in May, then droop over gracefully as the plant matures. 

Sedge, palm (Carex muskingumensis)
A sedge of riverbanks and floodplain forests, this robust species will tolerate shade and moisture quite well.  Each stem, reaching 2–3' tall, supports a dense tuft of leaves at the top, giving an individual plant the appearance of a small palm tree.  Plant it next to a pond or in a wet part of your landscape, and be sure to allow plenty of room, since it will readily fill in an area.

Sedge, Pennsylvania (Carex pensylvanica)
This is a lovely woodland sedge that typically grows in dry, sandy soils.  Its pretty, delicate, light green, arching leaves usually stay below 8".  They become tan in the fall and remain so during the winter.  This sedge grows in a clump and is a common component of native woodlands.  Although its flowers are not showy, it is a good selection for ground cover, spreading by rhizomes most effectively in sandy soils.  Pennsylvania sedge is also an important component of the natural-looking woodland garden.

Sedge, tussock (Carex stricta)
Tussock sedge is often the dominant sedge in wetland habitats.  In standing water it will form mounds, or tussocks, over time.  In May the emerging foliage looks like blue-green needles poking out of the top of the mound.  Its seedheads are held upright above the slender leaves, which are 2–3' tall.  It is best placed in a very wet situation, but it will tolerate periodic drying out.

Switch grass (Panicum virgatum)
This grass, also a member of the tallgrass prairie, grows in a wide variety of moisture and light conditions. It is a popular native grass, having many ornamental characteristics including upright clump form, bright yellow fall color, and an extremely attractive winter silhouette.  Flowers open in August with a hint of silvery-red.  The seedhead matures on an upright stem into a soft, feathery form that is 4–6' tall and changes to a softer brown through the season.  The leaves range from deep green to gray-green in summer. Switch grass can be used as an accent or planted in masses. It looks very good next to water and can be used to control erosion. This species provides wildlife cover and is a food source for many birds and browsing animals.  It is very striking in fresh and dried arrangements, and most effective when viewed at a distance. 

Wild rye, Canada (Elymus canadensis)
This robust, clump-forming grass is a part of the tallgrass prairie. This grass grows in a variety of conditions throughout the prairie range including poor, dry, rocky soils.  However, this grass prefers moist soils in the growing season to look its best.  It is a fast-growing, cool-season grass that matures by July.  With leaves up to 15" long, the blue-green foliage contrasts well with other perennials in the border. The large and showy seedheads are up to 1" across, 4–8" long, and arch gracefully above the leaves of this 3–5' tall plant.  Each seed in this tight, elongated cluster has several long curved “hairs” at its tip, which give the entire seedhead a soft appearance. The seeds persist through the winter and are a good food source for birds and other wildlife.  It should be considered for both prairie and native garden plantings.

Wild rye, silky (Elymus villosus)
This grass is typically found in mesic woods.  Its nodding seedheads are adorned with long, soft bristles and grow to 1–3' tall.  The upper surface of the leaves is velvety soft to the touch, but each leaf twists as it diverges from the stem, so the upper surface actually faces downward.  Place it close to a walkway so you can enjoy its texture as you walk through your garden!

Wool-grass (Scirpus cyperinus)
Wool-grass grows in wet places but prefers no more than several inches of standing water.  It may get as tall as 6'.  Stems are round, dark green, and vertical with red-brown flowers at the tip of arching stalks from mid- to late summer.  As the fruits mature, they develop long, crinkly hairs that give a "woolly" look to the seedhead.  This sedge is effective both when planted in large masses where its color is an effective backdrop and when planted in small clumps where its flowers can be more closely observed and appreciated. 

Check out our brochure series for more information! 


Contact Information
1831 Traver Rd
(734) 794-6627
David Borneman, Manager

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