For Your Garden - January 2008

You may not consider winter as a time to think about or be impressed by the plants in your garden. Winter gardens can be beautiful, though, and provide important habitat for wildlife. As you plan for your garden this year, consider including some native grasses. Leaving them year round can be a pleasing experience for you, and they require very little maintenance. Native prairie grasses are resistant to cold and drought and are rarely attacked by disease and insects. They are perennials that you can enjoy year after year.

big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Photo © Illinois Department of Natural Resources
Both of these native prairie plants are bunch grasses, growing in clumps. They can add interest to your garden through color and shape. In winter, snow catches on the leaves, and ice can make them bend to reflect the brilliant sunlight. Many animal species can find shelter under the leaves at the base of the plant, and birds will eat the seeds throughout the winter.
Big bluestem is the State Prairie Grass of Illinois. It can grow to a height of six to eight feet. In summer, the leaves are blue-green, thus this plant's common name. In fall the leaves turn yellow and bronze.
Indian grass grows to a height of four to six feet. It has long narrow leaves that ripple in the wind and seed heads that look like feather plumes. Flowers develop in August and September, and the plant provides a good color accent in fall.
Both of these species should be planted far enough from other plants in your garden to give them room to grow and to avoid entanglements with other plants. Since these are tall plants, the back of the garden is a good place for them.
Classification and taxonomy are based on Mohlenbrock, Robert H. 2014. Vascular flora of Illinois: A field guide. Fourth edition. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale. 536 pp.

 Illinois Range

 Native Plant Information

For more information about native Illinois plants, including where to purchase them and planting guides, view the following publications at our publications page. You can access more information on the Schoolyard Habitat Action Grant page, too.