Three drought-tolerant native bunch grasses

Posted on April 29, 2016 by Sonoma Valley Sun


If you are looking for a pretty, California native bunch grass that is fine textured, water-wise and resistant to deer, consider Deer Grass, Idaho Fescue and Leafy Reed Grass. What I like best about these three native bunch grasses is their lovely colors, their fine texture and their flexibility of use in the landscape. They are all easy care plants that can be planted in full sun or light shade. If you plant them in a lightly shaded microclimate in Northern California they need little water once established. They all prefer well-drained soil but can withstand a certain amount of clay.

Deer Grass (Mulhenbergia rigens) is the largest on the list. Give it plenty of room. Its foliage grows 3-feet wide and tall the plant tops out at 5’x5’ when in full bloom. If you don’t crowd this plant the flowering stalks will fan outward in a beautiful arch. The flowering stalks are lovely as they sway and bend in the breeze. This grass grows bright green in spring and fades to a golden grey-green as it ages. As long as you give it enough breathing space you never have to do anything to this plant — no fertilizing, pruning or deadheading. The only reason to cut it back is if you prefer the plant to stay a brighter green. In that case cut it in a neat, low mound in early winter and let it regenerate.

Idaho Fescue (Festuca idahoensis) is native from California up to the Canadian border. It is a small bunch grass typically topping out at 12-inches tall and wide. Its grey green foliage forms a tight mound. Pale golden-creamy flowering stalks emerge in summer. Some people prefer the look of the foliage and cut away the flowers. This is any excellent grass if you are trying to establish a meadow garden. It looks best with some summer water and really pops visually in a slightly shady environment. This grass has a number of cultivars. One cultivar called F. idahoensis “Siskiyou Blue” has striking silvery-blue foliage. Like deer grass, Idaho fescue needs virtually no maintenance. You can cut it back in early winter if you want to refresh the leaves but it isn’t necessary.

Leafy Reed Grass (Calamagrostis foliosa) has pretty flowering heads that display a purplish tint in spring then fade to a creamy white. This grass works well mixed into a woodland garden understory or planted in a large group in a sunny ornamental planting bed. Unlike the compact Idaho Fescue, this small leafy reed grass likes to spread out wide and floppy. Its blue-green foliage reaches about 1-foot tall and 2-feet wide. I have some in my woodland garden here in Sonoma and they require no maintenance other than occasional light irrigation in the dry season.

I hope you try these native grasses in your own garden. They can be used a sweet accent plants or grouped together to form a natural looking focal point.

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