Growing Native Tallgrasses and Wildflowers for Prairie Restoration

Part 4 - Species Summary Sheets For Selected Tallgrass Prairie Grasses and Wildflowers

Grasses

Indian Grass
Sorghastum nutans

Indian Grass is a native prairie grass which grows to a height of 2 metres. It is one of the main components of the tall grass prairie community. Once common throughout Southern Ontario, these plant communities would have been one of the first areas to be converted to farmland and developed because of the dry sites they favoured and the absence of trees. This grass is very nutritious for livestock.

This particular prairie grass is a C4 photosynthesizing warm season grass, greening up in the spring after the soil has warmed (around June). Indian Grass is one of the dominant species of the tallgrass prairie. This grass is less common in the eastern regions of Canada, but you find it growing sporadically along dry roadsides and in fields, often along with Big Bluestem.

Indian Grass is one of the common species which occurs in association with Big and Little Bluestem and Switchgrass in tallgrass prairie. In Canada, its primary range is east of Manitoba although the species does occur on favourable sites further to the west. Best suited to fertile, well-drained soils, Indian Grass does have some tolerance to drought conditions.

Key Field Identification Features

Indian grass has a prominent ligule (to 5 mm long), the sides of which seem to be projections of the sheath margins. The ligule appears like a "rifle sight". Seed heads are a characteristic shiny golden-yellow with long greyish hairs and twisted awns, making the flowers slightly fuzzy in appearance. It grows to a height of 2 metres ( 2-9 feet).

Seed Collection, Storage and Planting

The seeds ripen in late September and persist on the seed stalk well into the fall. The seeds are found on the end of a long stalk in a cluster of approximately 30 to 50 seeds per cluster. When ripe the seeds are reddish brown in colour. Seeds are easily collected by hand picking after ripening. For best results, the seeds should be cold/dry stratified for a few months prior to planting and stored in a cool , dry place, e.g a refrigerator or unheated building.

Big Bluestem
Andropogon gerardii

Big bluestem, which grows to a height of 2.6 metres, is the dominant species of the tallgrass prairie. Like the other Andropogons, this species presents a constantly changing display of colours. When in flower, the inflorescence varies from a deep bronze to a steely grey-blue; later the whole plant turns to rich shades of red, brown, and purple.

It is an excellent forage plant, and livestock choose it over any other species. Although most of its range has been plowed under, it still grows in patches in mid- and eastern Canada in dry open places, along roadsides and shores, and in fields and prairies. This particular prairie grass is a C4 photosynthesizing warm season grass, greening up in the spring after the soil has warmed (around June).

Adaptation & Use

Big bluestem is an erect, tall bunch grass with short scaly rhizomes. It is a major component of the tallgrass prairie of the eastern Great Plains. Big bluestem is most abundant on moist, well-drained, fertile loams, where its roots may reach deeper than 3 metres. With its warm season growth habit and adaptation to fire, big bluestem can be a valuable component in revegetation planting in areas receiving >50 cm of annual precipitation and on sites receiving run-off moisture.

Key Field Identification Features

Stems are solid and pithy rather than hollow as in most grasses. They are often purplish at the base and exhibit a bluish to bronze colour in late summer and fall. The seed head is a characteristic "turkey foot" shape with numerous white hairs between the seeds. The spikelets of two kinds are borne in pairs, one sessile and perfect, the other pediceled and sterile, the rachis articulated. The grass grows in clumps up to 2.6 metres (8 feet) high.

Seed Collection, Storage and Planting

The seeds ripen in late September and persist on the seed stalk well into the fall. The seeds are found on the end of a long stalk in three clusters of approximately 10 to 20 seeds per cluster. When ripe the seeds are light brown in colour. Seeds are easily collected by hand picking after ripening. For best results, the seeds should be cold/dry stratified for a few months prior to planting and stored in a cool, dry place.

Little Bluestem
Schizachyrium scoparium

An important, widespread grass, this was once the most abundant species in the American mixed-grass prairie region. Little Bluestem, as it is often called, is an unfortunate name because the plant is not little, it grows to 2.5 metres tall, and it is only blue (blue-green actually) when the shoots first come up in the early summer - a stage at which you are not likely to notice it.

By the time the flowering stalks come out, it has turned a rich mixture of tan, brown, and wine red, and stays this way through the winter. In dry soil such as that along railway tracks, it forms definite clumps, but given more moisture, it will form sod. It is an excellent forage grass. This particular prairie grass is a C3 photosynthesizing warm season grass, greening up in the spring after the soil has warmed (around June).

Adaptation & Use

A bunch grass with a dense root system reaching to 2.5 metres, Little Bluestem can spread by seed, tillers and short rhizomes. More drought tolerant than Big Bluestem, it frequently occurs on the thin soils found on knolls and steep slopes as well as on gravelly or sandy soils. Because of its growth habit and adaptability to a wide range of soil conditions, Little Bluestem can be a valuable component in revegetation plantings. It is especially well-suited for use on upland range sites with thin soils.

Key Field Identification Features

Little Bluestem produces many pith-filled stems from a densely-tuffed base. Basal shoots are flat and bluish-coloured. Vegetative parts of the plant turn a warm bronze colour in late summer or early fall. When mature, the densely-hairy seed heads give a silvery appearance.

Seed Collection, Storage and Planting

The seeds ripen in late September and persist on the seed stalk well into the fall. The seeds are found on the end of a short stalk and/or in the axis between the main stem and the grass blades. The seeds are found in clusters with approximately 5 to 10 seeds per cluster. When ripe the seeds have a light brown coat partly open, with white hairs present giving the seed a fluffy appearance. For best results, the seeds should be cold/dry stratified and stored in a cool, dry place.

Switchgrass
Panicum virgatum

Switchgrass is a tallgrass found in prairies, open woods and brackish marshes, which can grow up to 2.1 metres high. Song birds and upland game birds will feed on Switchgrass seeds.

In eastern Canada you find Switchgrass more often on dry soils - along sandy roadsides and along the upland edge of marshes, growing in bunches. The leafy clumps last through the winter, though dead, and their yellow colour provides a touch of brightness on dark rainy days. Switch grass is a C4 photosynthesizing warm season grass, greening up after the soil has warmed (around June).

Adaptations & Use

Switchgrass, with Big Bluestem and Indian Grass, is one of the major grasses in tall grass prairies. The species has a somewhat wider range of adaptation than the other major tall grasses. It is a tall, erect plant with numerous short scaly rhizomes.

Key Field Identification Features

Switchgrass has few basal leaves but long, somewhat bluish leaves occur along the stem from the base to the seed head, there are no evergreen leaves at the base. The leaves are distinctly veined with a prominent mid-vein. There are long hairs on the upper surface of the leaf near the sheath. The flowers are borne singly at the ends of the branches; grain is hard and bony. They are purple in flower, then change to a rich tan. The grass can grow up to 2.1 metres (7 feet) in height. The leaves and stem turn yellow when they are dead in the winter.

Seed Collection, Storage and Planting

When planting Switchgrass, older seed tends to have better germination rates than newer seed, so do not throw our the surplus of last year's seed. These seeds do very well with no stratification, store them in a cool dry place.

Prairie Cordgrass
Spartina pectinata

Also called: Freshwater Cordgrass, Prairie Sloughgrass

This is a common prairie tallgrass, reaching heights of 2.1 metres, growing in spots that are too wet for grasses such as Big Bluestem and Indian Grass.

Before the large expanses of tallgrass prairie came under cultivation, Prairie Cordgrass covered hundreds of square miles of the floodplains of the Missouri River, often growing in pure stands. In eastern Canada it occupies a different place in the landscape - you find it on the upland edge of salt marshes, where the soil is relatively dry. The grass has been used for hay. It can also be used for weaving as the dried grass is extremely tough. Prairie Cordgrass is a C4 photosynthesizing warm season grass, greening up after the soil has warmed (around June).

Adaptation & Use

Prairie Cordgrass is a tall, robust plant well-adapted to marsh edges and non-saline wet meadows where it often occurs in almost pure stands. It will also grow in mixed communities with other upland plants associated with freshwater marshes.

Key Field Identification Features

Prairie Cordgrass leaves are very rough on the upper surface and margins, smooth and shiny green below. Seed heads are composed of 10 - 20 spikes attached to the main stem. Each spike has up to 40 spikelets, all growing in two rows on the side of the spike away from the main stem. This grass grows to an average height of 60 cm to 2.1 metres (2 - 7 feet). The species name pectinata means "comb-like", referring to the arrangement of the flowers on the branch.

Seed Collection, Storage and Planting

Prairie Cordgrass requires three months of cold/moist stratification for a successful planting. This grass is slow to grow, however it is a great plant for both prairie and wetland restoration. A small amount of this grass can go a long way in restoration settings. Be patient when planting, and store this seed in the refrigerator.

Canada Wildrye
Elymus canadensis

Canada Wildrye is a tall, erect bunch grass with short rhizomes that can grow to a height of two metres.

It establishes early and can grow to maturity in its seedling year. For these reasons it is a very important early successional species in revegetation projects. This species is found throughout North America. It grows in sparse stands on sandy soils, in woods, and along riverbanks, roads and other disturbed sites. Canada Wildrye is a C3 photosynthesizing cool season grass, greening up in the early spring before most weeds.

Adaptation & Use

Canada Wildrye is a tall, erect bunch grass which may have short rhizomes when young. It is found throughout North America, usually growing as individual plants and not in dense stands. In prairie Canada, it most frequently occurs on sandy soils, dry or moist, in wooded areas and on disturbed sites like riverbanks. Establishing quickly in disturbed areas, it can be an important early successional species in revegetation plantings.

Key Field Identification Features

Canada Wildrye has short rhizomes and wide (to 20 mm), waxy-green pointed leaves borne from the base of the stems to the spike. The auricles are claw-like and clasping, arising from a broad yellowish or light green collar. Nodding awned seed heads about 15-20 cm long have two spikelets at each node. This grass is densely flowered with a bush inflorescence; usually straight, sometimes nodding. It's bristles are coarse, thick, and curve outward. It usually grows in tufts of 75 cm - 1.8 m (2.5 - 6 ft.).

Seed Collection, Storage and Planting

Canada Wildrye is easy to grow and does very well with no stratification. The seeds are easily collected when ready, and a dry, cool storage is recommended.



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