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Wednesday, April 22, 2009 04:08 pm

Native prairie grasses make for a carefree garden

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Big Bluestem is native to Illinois.

Native grasses can be welcome additions in the landscape, adding beauty, movement and sound.

Let’s define “native” plant. The only truly native plants are ones that still grow where they originated. Most literature refers to native plants in the United States as plants that existed in an area prior to the arrival of European settlers. Prior to settlers in Illinois, the landscape consisted of 22 million acres of prairie. Today less than one hundredth of one percent of the original undisturbed prairies exist in Illinois.

Prairie plants have evolved with the climate, soils and pathogens in their native habitat for thousands of years. Some advantages of native prairie plant species include: extensive root systems that make prairie plants resistant to drought and dry conditions, prairie plants provide habitat for birds and other grassland animals, they can reduce soil erosion, they have few insect and disease problems, and, once established, prairie plants need minimum maintenance.

Native grasses provide year-round interest and offer a great diversity of leaf textures, colors and flowers. Most grasses flower in the late summer. Grasses can be incorporated into existing flower gardens or as separate prairie plantings in the landscape.

In 1989, Big bluestem was designated as the official prairie grass for Illinois. Big bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, is a warm-season grass that was once the chief plant of the tallgrass prairie. Big bluestem grows to between six to eight feet tall and has a fibrous root system up to 12 feet deep. This tall, slender-stemmed grass ranges in color from bluish-green in the summer to reddish-brown or orange in the fall. Flowers appear in late summer. This grass is easily identified by its purplish hairy stems, and its seed head which branches into three parts, resembling a turkey’s foot. The leaves turn a yellow or coppery color in the fall.

Little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, has bluish stems that change from orange to russet red color throughout the fall and winter. Little bluestem’s common name refers to the bluish coloration at the base of the stem. It reaches a height of two to four feet and has a dense root system which may reach five to eight feet deep. Fluffy white seed heads are produced in late summer on arching stems.

Using native plants can cut down on exotic plants that invade our gardens. Prairie plants are best planted in the spring, while late fall is the best time to sow prairie plant seeds. Purchase native plant species from reputable local nurseries or mail-order catalogs. Usually plants from a local source are adapted to your area. Avoid digging native plants from the wild.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has a publication, Prairie Establishment and Landscaping, by William E. McClain, that is available om print and on the Internet at http://dnr.state.il.us/conservation/naturalheritage/prairie/table.htm. This publication also offers a list of sources of native Illinois prairie plant seeds.

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