Colorful Native Ornamental Grasses for Sun and Shade: Introducing Ladybug Red, Gold Dew and Appalachian Carex

By David Salman

Ladybug Red

Ornamental grasses have been immensely popular with European gardeners for many, many years.  Ironically, some of the original North American native grass selections where made overseas by European nurserymen.  But finally, in the last 10 to 15 years, ornamental grasses have become much more popular in the US and many new selections of our native species have been developed here.

New Ornamental Grass Selections for 2019

We’ve introduced several native grass selections for spring 2019, including:

Ladybug Red Big Bluestem Grass (Andropogon gerardii Ladybug Red)
Ladybug Red Big Bluestem Grass (Andropogon gerardii Ladybug Red)

‘Ladybug Red’ is a western form of the wide spread native prairie species, Big Bluestem grass.  It has outstanding red fall foliage and is a more compact grower than plants selected from moister, rich soil locations in the Mid-West. It’s also better adapted to the alkaline, mineral soils found west of the Mississippi River. 

Plant it in full sun and grow it with regular irrigation to keep the soil moderately moist. Keeping it too dry lessens the intensity of the fall color.

I found the original plant near the little town of La Veta in south-central Colorado while driving home from Denver on a beautiful fall day. Of the many Big Bluestem plants growing along the road’s edge, just one lone plant was bright red, which caught my eye even at 65 miles per hour. When I stopped to dig the plant along the highway shoulder near La Veta, CO, I soon discovered that there was a nest of ladybugs living in the crown of the plant; and out they came in large numbers. That’s how I decided to name it, ‘Ladybug Red’.  It’s a nice companion grass for other prairie species like Ratibida, Echinacea, Salvia azurea and Liatris.  

Gold Dew Tufted Hair Grass (Deschampsia cespitosa Goldtau)
Gold Dew Tufted Hair Grass (Deschampsia cespitosa Goldtau)

This cultivar is an improved selection of our colorful, fine-textured native grass. Chosen by German horticulturists, ‘Goldtau’ was selected for its profuse display of misty, golden flowers and attractive seed heads that hold well through winter.  It’s very cold hardy and best grown in colder climates. It’s not a good choice for the southern-most third of the US with hot, humid summers.  It needs full sun and a compost enriched, moist soil to grow well. ‘Goldtau’ is great for massing (large groups of the plant) and planted behind and around tall summer blooming perennials like Phlox paniculata, Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium) and Bee Balm (Monarda).

Appalachian Sedge (Carex appalachica)
Appalachian Sedge (Carex appalachica)

Native to the East Coast and parts of the Appalachian Mountains, this outstanding grass-like plant is a superb choice for use as an attractive grassy groundcover for partial to heavy shade areas under trees and alongside buildings. Appalachian Sedge is adaptable to a wide range of soils including clay. It needs dry to moderate moisture conditions but doesn’t like wet soil like many Carex species. A clumper (doesn’t spread by stolons), space the plants 10 to 12 inches apart to create a swirling carpet of green. Mow it high in early to mid-spring so it will look its best during the growing season. It can be interplanted with other shade-loving woodland wildflowers and flowering bulbs (Daffodils, Hyacinthoides, Scilla and others).

Grass Attributes that Make Them Invaluable in the Garden

Ornamental grasses are invaluable in the landscape for a variety of reasons. 

  • Their fine textured leaves and flowers provide excellent contrast with the broader foliage of perennial plants.
  • Their supple foliage and flowers catch the breeze to provide gentle movement in the garden.
  • The flowers and seed heads are invaluable for providing fall and winter interest in the garden.
  • They are also essential for habitat creation in the landscape. Native ornamental grasses are the primary food for the caterpillars of many species of butterflies.
  • And many beneficial insects and their egg cases overwinter in the protection of the dried leaves that provide shelter over the winter months.
  • Ornamental grasses are also some of our most durable and resilient garden plants that provide extraordinary ornamental value with little effort.
  • Many species are excellent choices for rain gardens as they can tolerate both dry and wet growing conditions.
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