Ornamental grasses are beautiful, add interest and texture to our gardens, and have become a favorite in home landscaping. Unfortunately, many grasses sold at nurseries are non-native and of little value to wildlife. Even worse, they can become invasive. The good news is that with a little searching you can find native grasses at your local nursery that will benefit wildlife and look beautiful in the home landscape.
Here is a partial list of some native grasses, known as the Big Four, and how they can help the habitat in your own backyard.
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) – This clump forming, warm season grass with open, lacy sprays with small seeds has been restored to many places in the Meadowlands, from DeKorte Park and Mill Creek Marsh to River Barge Park and Laurel Hill Park. Many songbirds, including Cardinals, Grosbeaks, Towhees and numerous native sparrow species, love the seeds produced by this beautiful curly leaf clumping grass. Switchgrass is also a host plant for many species of Skipper butterflies and can easily be found at just about any garden center.
Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparius) – Little Bluestem is a very ornamental bunchgrass with fine textured foliage that forms very dense mounds. Turkey, Juncos and sparrows love the seeds of bluestem from this 1-to-4-foot yellow tan grass. This beautiful grass is also the host plant for Skipper and Satyr butterflies.
Big Bluestem (Andopogon gerardii) – Fast disappearing from its native range, great for restoration projects on larger properties, but too big for the average backyard. The seeds of this almost 8-foot-tall grass are used by many songbirds such as finches, juncos and sparrows, and is also loved by turkey. If you happened to have a buffalo roaming around your New Jersey home, they would love it too. The Skippers and Satyr butterflies also will use Big Bluestem as a host plant.
Indian grass (Sorgastrum nutans) – A beautiful grass with a somewhat metallic golden sheen, it is a native grass that grows from east of the Rockies all the way to the Atlantic Coast. This tall grass (3-to-8-feet) with its shiny golden brown plumes is loved by many birds, from Cardinals and pipits to our native sparrows, and, of course, it is a host plant for Skipper butterflies. Indian grass makes a beautiful addition to the home wildlife habitat
It is vitally important that we restore the balance to our backyard eco-systems, and introducing our native grasses is one important way we can accomplish this while making our backyards more beautiful and healthy.