Prairie Grasses in Winter

During winter the winds come in crisp and invigorating from across the prairies.  At this season of the year the landscape assumes a dreary look to many who do not understand.  But to others, when the gray arms of the cottonwood are illuminated by the January sun and silhouetted against the blue sky, when sleeping buds are covered with frost sparkling in the winter sun, when the dormant life of millions of flowers is covered with a blanket of snow, when rich plowed fields await the seed that is to feed the millions, and gray and lavender clouds beckon you over the prairies, the landscape sings a song of rich tonal beauty, a great prelude to dawn, a reminder before the resurrection of life.

  Jens Jensen


 Prairie Grasses in Winter

snow front yard & parkway

Winter in my front yard and parkway.  Growing in a whorled, arching mound, 1-2’ tall and around, the coppery bronze blades of Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) catch and hold light snow.

Little Blue Grass winter

All the grasses are exquisite, but the star of the winter prairie is Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).  A clumping grass, Its blades turn to copper in the fall and remain colorful all winter, exquisite against a background of alabaster snow.

My beautiful picture

Little Bluestem is found in the wild on well-drained slopes of sandy or gravelly soils, on the foredunes of Lake Michigan, and dry to mesic prairies.

LBS terrace geneva river park

Little Bluestem growing on an east-facing terraced slope at Geneva River Park.

Little Bluestem has not performed well for me.  The clumps diminish within a couple of years, although it seeds itself about, mostly next to the alkaline concrete sidewalk.

What has been your experience wit Little Bluestem?

prairie dropseed winter bench

Prairie Dropseed at River Park in Geneva,  Prairie Dropseed doesn’t hold up as well as Little Bluestem in heavy snow.

Prairie Dropseed snow

More Prairie Dropseed.  Prairie Dropseed is found most often in mesic prairies.  There’s no finer grass for a home garden than this.  Plant it in large swaths interspersed with Pale Purple Coneflower or Purple Prairie Clover.

Palm sedge winterThe palm tree-like structure of Palm Sedge (Carex muskingumensis) shows off beautifully against the snow.  A running sedge, it grows up to 3’ tall.   Palm Sedge is found in woods near streams and in wet woodland  pockets.

Prairie grasses and sedges add so much character and beauty to the landscape in summer, fall, and winter, in addition to keeping the soil hydrated.  If you don’t have any now, put them on your list to plant this coming year.

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8 Responses to Prairie Grasses in Winter

  1. Trish Beckjord January 29, 2015 at 9:16 am #

    Pat, what a perfect quote from Jens Jensen! I LOVE winter landscapes for their subtle color and refined almost graphic look! And I love my little bluestem through the winter. So far mine has come back well. It does re-seed giving me new plants to transplant and share. Interestingly enough, the seedlings do seem to take hold best near the edge of the sidewalk; perhaps the soil drainage is best there. I’ll have to watch this further this spring. It’s fun too to watch the Juncos picking off the seed as they forage in the garden.

    Thanks for another great post!

  2. Suzanne Massion January 29, 2015 at 9:49 am #

    I have to say ditto to Trish’s remarks. In our prairie strip along a narrow band that I mow next to the street curb, Little Blue stem holds sway, although Indian Grass (that rascal) threatens to over whelm. As an artist I’ve long been drawn to the look of grasses poking through the snow. With your permission again, Pat, here’s link to one of my paintings, “Cold Creek Lane”. Grass in the snow was definitely the inspiration:

  3. Pat Hill January 29, 2015 at 10:59 am #

    Beautiful, Suzanne. And Trish, thank you for your critique, kind words, and information.

  4. Jason January 29, 2015 at 4:18 pm #

    Surprised you didn’t mention Panicum. They don’t have Little Bluestem’s color but the upright form, tan foliage and airy seedheads make a nice statement.

  5. Pat February 12, 2015 at 12:20 pm #

    Interesting to read your comment about Little Bluestem. I so admire it, especially at Nachusa, but it has not developed into the grassy meadow I had anticipated out here. Rather, sporadic clumps here and there. Boutelouia and Sporobolus, however, have both been spectacular. I have some Carex bicknelii that I am very, very pleased with. Wish I had planted more.

    • Pat Hill February 12, 2015 at 12:35 pm #

      I love Carex bicknelli, as well. There aren’t many sedges for sun.

  6. Dee April 27, 2015 at 2:03 pm #

    Hi, I just found your place as I was searching for native trees SW Ohio. So…I just kept on reading! Thank you for such wonderful information here. I have had the dealings with moonscape-landscape-foreignscape neighbors for the last 7 years and to say the least it hasn’t been wonderful trying to “naturalize” the property without visits from the backward gas-noise-mow and don’t lower my property value mentality neighbors and town officials. But guess what…I’m winning and I want to say that when you put the land, the creatures, the water and air first priority, they win (but not without a fight). I have found that by leaving big areas alone, that the heights of the grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees all make a difference in the survival of birds and creatures in the coldest of days as they become mere islands of perches and wind breaks not to mention the seeds that keep them through the days of winter. When I see the moonscape snow on mowed lawns it not only looks dead but causes death to all things living. Please keep on the native track and maybe you could make a difference in the city council “AWARENESS” mentality 🙂 (maybe you already do!)

    • Dennise November 17, 2016 at 6:23 am #

      Hi Dee! I’m in SW Ohio also. We have been transforming our one acre site into a natural haven for wildlife. I wish I had gotten into gardening native many years ago…but, better late than never! It’s amazing how many unique and diverse pollinators we find in our garden after plant and allowing the natives to grow and we’ve only been here for three springs. I raised butterflies this year, Monarchs and swallowtails and that has underscored the need for more nectar and host plants! Looking around in my local travels I see the need to encourage people to do what they can to help the pollinators.
      And Pat, I am so enjoying your blog! I’ve been sitting here all morning reading your older posts and learning! Thank you for sharing your gardens and knowledge!

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