Consider Native Grasses


Eileen Berger, Indian Trail Master Naturalist

This sweltering summer has served as a textbook case for proving which landscape plants can handle drought.  If we could go back in time to look at landscapes in Ellis and Navarro counties, say 150 to 200 years ago, we would see tall grass prairies that stretched from Mexico to Canada.  We are in the Blackland Prairie area of Texas, and the mainstay of that prairie was the native grasses that are finally being recognized as desirable for a number of reasons.

Native means original to the area, not introduced by man. Before European settlers arrived, birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects and all types of plant life supplied the nutrients each individual needed.  Of course there were lean years, plagues of locusts, floods, fires, and all the natural catastrophes.  Native Americans settled some areas, roamed others, and harvested as they saw fit.  But it wasn’t until European settlers moved into the Blackland Prairie that the native grasses became disturbed and all but wiped out by the introduction of the iron plow. Today only .004 % of the prairie still exists in its original form.

The very nature of the clay soil, not really black but dark brown, attracted farmers to the area. The soil was so fertile that all one had to do was till it and plant. That fertility was the result of decomposition of organic matter deposited from the deep root systems of the native grasses that had grown there for ages. That humus gives our soil its dark-brown color.

Water, or the lack of water, will in the future determine whether or not we can continue to landscape our yards with introduced species of grasses that need enormous amounts of water to remain alive.  Most of the water used in Texas is for landscape purposes, not for drinking, or bathing or washing clothes.  By planting native grasses such as buffalo grass, water usage would be reduced. Moreover,  air would be cleaner because buffalo grass does not need to be mowed as often as introduced species such as Bermuda or St. Augustine grass. There are native grasses such as Mexican feather grass that can be used as accents much as purple fountain grass is used now.  That grass is not native and must be replanted each year. “That grass”…are you talking about purple fountain grass?  If so, you may want to mention the name again.  Mexican feather grass doesn’t need to be replanted. Consider: “However, unlike purple fountain grass, Mexican feather grass does not need to be replanted annually.”

Once established, native grasses can withstand drought, neglect, grasshoppers, grazing, and heavy  foot traffic. If you need a grass for an area that stays wet, such as an aerobic septic field, Inland sea oats, eastern gama grass, or Lindheimer’s muhly would be good choices. Most native grasses are drought tolerant. Big and little bluestem, hairy grama, purple threeawn and tall grama are but a few of the possibities to consider, depending on location and soil type.  Sideoats grama, the state grass of Texas, as well as several others, can even be used on rooftops!

Many recently installed landscapes have featured native grasses because of their heritage, beauty and authenticity, but perhaps more importantly because of their suitability to our climate, ease of upkeep, and contribution to desirable bird and animal habitats. Some great examples of plantings can be seen at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Fort Worth, the Trinity River Audubon Center in Dallas, and Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center in Cedar Hill which will have its grand opening September 10, and 11, 2011.

Two sources for native grass seed are Native American Seed Company in Junction, Texas, and Wildseed Farms in Fredricksburg, Texas.  A local source for native grass plants is John Snowden’s Bluestem Nursery in Arlington, Texas.  It is open by appointment only; however, John will reply to e-mails at or call 817-466-2271.

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