University of Maryland Extension

Ornamental and Native Grasses for the Landscape

ornamental grasses
Ornamental pink muhly grass (left) with switchgrass in the background. Photo: Mikaela Boley

Key Points

  • Understand the term “native” versus “ornamental.”
  • Learn which size and type of native and ornamental grass varieties are appropriate for your garden.
  • Learn which ornamental and native grasses have an aggressive habit, which is not recommended for smaller gardens.

“Native” Versus “Ornamental” Grasses

The term ‘native’ refers to a plant species that occurs naturally in an ecoregion and habitat over the course of evolutionary time. Because they originated in a particular ecoregion, these species are adapted to growing conditions and have co-evolved with other native species. To learn more about native plants, please refer to the page, What is a Native Plant?

‘Ornamental’ is a term used to describe plants that are propagated and grown primarily for aesthetic, rather than functional qualities. The term is typically used to describe plants that do not occur naturally in an ecoregion.

There are also many cultivars (cultivated varieties) of each species grown by the nursery industry. Cultivars of both native and ornamental grass species are available in the majority of plant nurseries.

Recommended Ornamental Grass Species for Maryland Landscapes

*=Native to Maryland
+=Readily self-seeds

*Big bluestem - Andropogon gerardii

One of the tallest native grasses in Maryland, from 5-8 ft. tall, this grass has a wide native range across the U.S. Leaves green to blue-green in summer, turning orange to copper red in fall with an inflorescence that looks similar to a turkey’s foot. Adaptable to a variety of soils; best used as habitat or conservation restoration as they are quite tall for the home landscape.

Blue fescue - Festuca glauca

A short, clump-forming grass with attractive blue color. The leaf blade has a very fine texture. Great to use as a groundcover or along walkways. Drought tolerant.

Common cultivars: ‘Elijah Blue’, ‘Blue Whiskers’, ‘Beyond Blue’

Foerster’s Feather Reed Grass - Calamogrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’

A widely used ornamental grass with tall (3-5 ft.), upright habit. Showy golden seed head with feathery appearance. Will grow in a variety of soil conditions and types.

shenandoah switchgrass
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) 'Shenandoah'. Photo: Mikaela Boley

*+Switchgrass - Panicum virgatum

A large native grass reaching 3-6 ft. tall (depending on cultivar). Easily grown in most soils; has wide tolerance for dry, moist, sandy or clay soils. Also has some salt tolerance, which makes it useful for the coastal plain. Good for erosion control, but does not tolerate much shade.

Common cultivars: ‘Northwind’, ‘Shenandoah’, ‘Heavy Metal’

*Prairie Dropseed - Sporobolus heterolopsis

Native grass that tolerates a variety of soil types, from heavy clay to dry, rocky soil. With a height of 2-3 ft. tall, and airy panicles of golden seed head, it serves as a great groundcover. Effective when planted en masse or along borders.

little bluestem standing ovation cultivar
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) 'Standing Ovation.' Photo: Mikaela Boley

*Little bluestem - Schizachyrium scoparium

A native grass with many cultivars available to exhibit the beautiful blue coloring (turning to red and orange in the fall). Grows 1.5-3 ft. tall, preferring dry soil types. Important to birds and insects, but also deer proof.

Common cultivars: ‘Standing Ovation’, ‘Cimmaron’, ‘Smoke Signal’

*Purple love grass - Erogrostis spectabilis

A very short (1-2 ft.) grass with airy clouds of purple seed head. Prefers medium to dry soil moisture and is tolerant of infertile, droughty soils. Excellent when used along borders or in mass plantings.

*+Northern sea oats - Chasmanthium latifolium

Grows in average to wet soils and is one of the more shade-tolerant grasses. Grows 2-5 ft. tall, it produces large ornamental seed heads that turn from green to bronze in the fall. Self-seeds and may spread aggressively.

*Tufted hair grass - Deschampsia cespitosa

One of the more shade-tolerant grass species, prefers part-shade over full sun. Foliage remains semi-evergreen and forms a dense tussock of thin leaf blades. Height of 2-3’, works best massed in woodland gardens or naturalized areas.

Pearl millet - Pennisetum glaucum

Annual grass most commonly used in the fall for container or temporary harvest décor. May be dried and used in arrangements.

Common cultivars: ‘Purple Majesty’, ‘Purple Baron’

*+Indiangrass - Sorghastrum nutans

A tall clumping grass often planted in a seed mix with conservation or right-of-way landscapes. Takes several years to reach a mature height of 6-8 ft. Requires full sun. Foliage can take on a steely blue-green appearance, with a feathery yellow-orange seed head. May be considered too tall for the landscape. Can demonstrate dominant habit in a meadow, out-competing other species.

Common cultivars: ‘Indian Steel’, ‘Sioux Blue’

*Bottlebrush grass - Elymus hystrix

Clump-forming cool season grass with good tolerance for shade. Prefers part-shade in well-drained soils, but has adaptability to dry and clay soil types. Height of 2.5-3 ft. Attractive bristly seed heads that are 9-10 in. in length, matures earlier than warm-season grasses.

Avoid These Invasive Grass Species

While some native grass species self-seed freely, non-native grass species that spread too easily are considered invasive to our ecosystem. It is recommended that you avoid purchasing the following ornamental species, even though plant nurseries commonly have them available.

  • Chinese silvergrass - Miscanthus sinensis

    • M. sinensis ‘Zebrinus’

  • Fountaingrass - Pennisetum alopecuroides (also known as Cenchrus alopecuroides)

  • Chinese fountaingrass - Pennisetum purpurascens (also known as Cenchrus purpurascens)

  • Hardy Pampas grass - Saccharum ravennae (formerly known as Erianthus ravennae)

  • Japanese bloodgrass - Imperata cylindrica

     

Ornamental Grasses

Common Name

Botanical Name

Height

Full Sun (FS)/Part Shade (PS) / Shade

Native To Maryland?*

Attributes

Big bluestem

Andropogon gerardii

5-8'

FS, PS

Yes/ M, P

Large grass; "turkey foot" seed head

Blue fescue

Festuca glauca

6-10"

FS

No

Short grass; blue color

Foerster's Feather Reed Grass

Calamogrostis x acutiflora

3-5'

FS

No

Upright habit; feathery plumes

Switchgrass

Panicum virgatum

3-6'

FS, PS

Yes/ M, P, C

Large native grass for erosion control

Prairie dropseed

Sporobolus heterolopsis

2-3'

FS

Yes

Airy clouds of seed head

Little bluestem

Schizachyrium scoparium

1.5-3'

FS

Yes/ M, P, C

Steely blue color in summer, red-orange color in fall

Purple love grass

Erogrostis spectabilis

1-2'

FS

Yes

Low grass with airy clouds of purple seed

Northern sea oats

Chasmanthium latifolium

2-5'

FS, PS

Yes/ M, P, C

Large ornamental seed heads; spreads aggressively

Pink muhly grass

Muhlenbergia capillaris

2-3'

FS, PS

Yes- rare

Clouds of pink seed head

Tufted hair grass

Deschampsia cespitosa

2-3'

PS

Yes

Shade and drought tolerant; woodland gardens

Pearl millet

Pennisetum glaucum

4-5'

FS, PS

No

Attractive purple foliage and large seed head

Indiangrass

Sorghastrum nutans

6-8'

FS

Yes/ M, P, C

Tall, upright habit; yellow-orange plumes in fall

Bottlebrush grass

Elymus hystrix

2.5-3'

FS, PS,  Shade

Yes/ M, P, C

Bottle brush shaped seed heads

* M=Mountain, P=Piedmont, C=Coast (Learn what region you are in: http://www.nativeplantcenter.net/glossary/)


Additional Resources

Author: Mikaela Boley, Senior Agent Associate in Home Horticulture, University of Maryland Extension, 2/2020

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