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Grass-like Native Plants
Grass-like Native Plants
Published by Porterbrook
Default Grass-like Native Plants


Frank W. Porter
Porterbrook Native Plants

Native grasses, while some of the most attractive plants in the landscape, do not necessarily fit into the overall design of every gardener. Native plants with grass-like appearance, however, can make striking additions to your garden. Not only can they be substituted for grasses, they offer unusual inflorescences throughout the growing season. And, once they have finished blooming, they continue to contribute to the structure of the garden because their foliage resembles clumps or tufts of grass. Using these grass-like plants offers an added dimension and provides an opportunity to use species rarely seen in gardens.

Blue-eyed Grasses, members of the genus Sisyrinchium, are plants related to irises, not grasses. The flowers are yellow-eyed with varying shades of blue petals and appear either in a small umbel or as a solitary bloom. All of the species have tufts of grass-like leaves and flattened winged stems that resemble the leaves. They grow in open woods or clearings and begin to bloom in spring and may continue to flower until fall. Sisyrinchium angustifolium (Stout Blue-eyed Grass) has a distinctly winged lower stem. The flowers are frequently pale blue. Sisyrinchium atlanticum (Eastern Blue-eyed Grass) is barely winged on the lower stem and has pale green foliage. The flowers are violet blue. It is mostly a Coastal Plain species and is found in low wet places. Sisyrinchium albidum (Pale Blue-eyed Grass) has light green leaves which are mostly basal. The flowers are white or pale blue. It prefers open areas in dry woods. Sisyrinchium mucronatum (Slender Blue-eyed Grass) is darker green and has very narrow leaves. Its pale blue flowers rest above a reddish purple spathe, a leafy bract that surrounds the inflorescence.

Yellow Stargrass (Hypoxis hirsutus) possesses similar grass-like leaves with six-petaled yellow flowers. Seldom reaching more than eight inches in height, it should be planted in groups; and in time it can form an attractive but small groundcover. It prefers dry open woods, but is highly adaptable.

Yellow-eyed Grasses are members of the genus Xyris. The three-petaled yellow flowers of Xyris species are ephemeral (short-lived). To fully appreciate their beauty, the plants should be placed in groups. Xyris torta (Slender Yellow-eyed Grass) grows to twenty inches and has spirally twisted and very narrow leaves. The base of the plant is enlarged, appearing as if an enlarged bulb. Xyris caroliniana (Carolina Yellow-eyed Grass) has somewhat broader leaves which are not twisted. The base of the plants is soft and flat. Xyris plants prefer wet areas.

Acorus americanus (Sweetflag) is a wetland species with a thick rhizome and basal sword-shaped leaves. This species should not be confused with Acorus calamus, which is a non-native species. One of the interesting characteristics of Sweetflag is the inflorescence which is a tapered spadix that is completely covered with small brownish or greenish flowers. It projects at an angle from the middle of the stem. Although an aquatic plant, it can be grown in moist garden soil. It can spread by rhizomes and should be contained in a sturdy pot buried in the ground. The plant can be divided every three years.

Xeryophyllum asphodeloides (Turkey Beard) forms a thick, bristly clump of stiff and needlelike leaves. The white flowers appear in a dense raceme that can reach ten inches in length. The flowers appear in late spring and early summer. It grows in dry woods or pine barrens. When in bloom, it rivals any ornamental grass.

Woodrushes are attractive plants with grass-like leaves that enjoy sunny to partially shaded areas. Luzula acuminata (Hairy Woodrush) is adorned with wispy, white hairs. It blooms in early spring. Luzula multiflora (Common Woodrush) possesses leaves that are an appealing reddish brown. Both species maintain their foliage during the winter months.

The genus Eleocharis (Spike Rush) contains several species that are both similar as well as variable. Denizens of wet areas, they can form mats or small colonies. They produce leafless stems and a solitary conical flower cluster at the top of each stem. Eleocharis tenuis (Doghair) has tufts of very slender leaves. Eleocharis obtusa (Spike Rush) has thicker stems and grows in clumps.

Three species of Iris can also be used effectively in place of grasses. Their attractive blooms brighten any garden in spring. For the remainder of the year, their erect blades resemble clumps of sedge. Iris cristata (Dwarf Crested Iris) grows in dry to slightly moist soil. It will spread to form a small groundcover, but can be divided every three to five years. Iris verna (Dwarf Iris) has narrower leaves and a beautiful purple bloom. It prefers well-drained soil and spreads at a much slower pace. Iris lacustris (Dwarf Lake Iris) prefers wet areas. It also has a purple blossom and will slowly create a small colony that can periodically be divided.

Equisetum hymenale (Scouring Rush) has evergreen hollow stems with no branches. It gives the appearance of a clump of bamboo. Toothed black bands add an attractive quality to the stems. Although it prefers wet places, it can be used in drier garden soil if placed in a buried container about the size of a five-gallon bucket and is periodically divided. It can also be grown in a large patio container. Equisetum is the single surviving genus of a class of primitive vascular plants that dates back over 350 million years. Scouring Rush derives its name from its stems being used by early settlers to scour pots and pans. Furniture makers used the rough stems like sandpaper to create a satiny finish to wood.

The character and structure of a native plant garden is only limited by the enthusiasm and imagination of the gardener. Using grass-like plants adds variety and interest and will please any visitor, whether they are fellow gardeners or curious insects.

Reprinted with permission of the Marietta Register
By Hedgerowe on 08-06-2009, 06:49 AM

This is excellent information, Porterbrook. I love grass-like plants but have little experience; this provides me with a resource for information that would otherwise take me a long time to pull together.

My favorite thing about grass-like plants is summed up nicely by you:
...they offer unusual inflorescences throughout the growing season. And, once they have finished blooming, they continue to contribute to the structure of the garden because their foliage resembles clumps or tufts of grass. Using these grass-like plants offers an added dimension and provides an opportunity to use species rarely seen in gardens.
Thank you again for sharing your knowledge (you are good to us!).
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By Staff on 08-06-2009, 01:23 PM

Yet another wonderful resource tool you have placed conveniently at our fingertips.

Thank you Porterbrook.
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By Carole on 08-06-2009, 02:38 PM

This is an excellent resource for those looking to reduce the size of their lawns. Low-growing plants like the dwarf irises can be used to great effect in this endeavor. Thank you for sharing.
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