Growing Prairie Dropseed Grass (Sporobolus heterolepis): Capturing the Beauty of the Prairie Grasses in Your Home Landscape
The native ornamental grasses have come into horticultural prominence over the past decade as we gardeners now appreciate their ornamental virtues and value for habitat creation in our landscapes. It has also become apparent, that a handful of Old World ornamental grasses can be weedy or even invasive in some parts of the US. But rather than abandon the use of ornamental grasses, there is the opportunity to replace them with beneficial native species. This is especially true now that progressive nurseries (like High Country Gardens and others) are selecting, propagating and growing a much larger selection of native species as well as many new and improved cultivars (now often referred to as "nativars"*).
Prairie Dropseed Grass: Exceptional Adaptability in the Landscape
One of the very best of our native prairie grasses is Sporobolus heterolepis (Prairie Dropseed). Prairie Dropseed, native to the mid-section of the US and Canada, has much to recommend it. A warm-season bunch grass (grows in a clump and doesn't run with underground stolons) with finely textured, arching foliage and tan colored sprays of summer flowers, it grows readily in sun and part sun in a variety of soils and moisture levels.
I didn't know this until I researched the species for this blog, but Sporobolus heterolepis has a special photosynthetic metabolism, typically found in cacti. This allows it to adapt to growing in hot, dry conditions once established. Called C4 metabolism, the grass stores up the sun's energy during the day, but actually processes the energy to convert to stored starches during the night, when the moisture loss associated with daytime photosynthetic activity, is minimized.
Prairie Dropseed Grass: Beauty That Also Attracts Songbirds
But aside from its exceptional adaptability in the landscape, Prairie Dropseed has many other virtues to recommend it. The graceful fountain of bright green, fine textured leaves are a delight, which get even more spectacular in the fall and winter when the foliage turns gold. And the mist-like flower spikes cover the plant in late summer like a ground level cloud of color. This native grasses is especially valuable for songbirds; fall ripening seeds provide nutritious grain for seed-eaters and many moth and butterfly caterpillars feed inconspicuously on the foliage, providing essential food for nesting birds to feed their chicks.
Prairie Dropseed Grass Companion Plants
This grass looks great with most any companion plant; it's such a pretty grass whose texture and leave color makes all the plants around it look better. A medium sized species (blooming at 3 ft. in height), pair it up with taller growing perennials like:
- Echinops (Globe Thistle)
- Eryngium yuccafolium (Rattlesnake Master)
- Eupatorium (Joe Pye Weed)
- Monarda (Beebalm)
- Solidago (Goldenrod)
As well as other native ornamental grasses such as:
Prairie Dropseed Grass Maintenance
An easy-care species, Prairie Dropseed needs a minimum of attention to thrive.
- Leave the plants standing over the winter to provide winter interest and a seed source of songbirds.
- Feed the soil it's growing in with Yum Yum Mix in mid- to late fall.
- A long-lived native, it typically doesn't need dividing unless the center of the clump begins to thin or die off. If this happens, dig the clump in mid-spring after you cut back the foliage. Trim away any of the dead crown and slice the root ball into quarters. Replant the quarters in compost-enriched planting holes and water thoroughly.
* See an important discussion from one of the country's leading native plant advocates: The Mt. Cuba Center botanical garden puts "Nativars" To the Test.
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