Prairie Plantings

By Duane Friend

When looking for an ornamental grass to either add to your perennial plant collection or to get your collection started, there are a number of fine grasses to choose from.

Retired Extension Educator Greg Stack says that size, shape, color, and texture often play into the decision. Another factor that is becoming important to many gardeners is the desire to include natives into their perennial border.

Big bluestem has been available to home gardeners for many years. This warm season, tall, clump-forming grass is a great addition to the perennial garden.

Plant breeders have been working to give the gardener some choices beyond the standard species of bluestem, and they have come up with two new big bluestem cultivars that offer a whole different look.

The first is a cultivar called ‘Rain Dance’. This bluestem grows up to 6 feet tall and forms a nice, loose open clump. The summer foliage is a deeper green than the species bluestem, and the leaves are tipped with a red coloration. In the fall, look for the plant to turn a dark maroon. It also produces red flowers on red stems. This creates a very dramatic look that signals fall in a big way.

The other new bluestem is called ‘Red October’. This bluestem grows 5 to 6 feet tall and has deep green summer foliage. In the late summer, the foliage turns purple and then a very vivid scarlet in autumn, giving the garden some spectacular late-season color.

Bluestem prefers a full-sun location, and if planted in a moist location, will be considerably taller than if it is planted in a dry spot.

If you’re in the market for a native prairie grass that is distinctively different from what the early settlers saw in the Great Plains, try one of these new introductions!

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About the author

Duane is an Educator with University of Illinois Extension in the Calhoun/Cass/Greene/Morgan/Scott unit.

View all articles by Duane Friend

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