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Thursday, Sept. 3, 2009 09:30 pm

A prairie plant for your landscape

Prior to European settlers in Illinois, 60 percent of the 22 million acres was prairie. Today less than one hundredth of one percent of the original undisturbed prairie exists in the Prairie State. Some of these original prairies can still be found in pioneer cemeteries, fencerows and railroad rights-of-way.

Prairie plants native to Illinois are good choices for inclusion in the landscape because they are adapted to the soils and environmental conditions. In addition, prairie establishments provide habitat for wildlife and, once established, require minimal care.

While there are many noteworthy prairie plants, one of my favorites is prairie dropseed. Not only is it a beautiful plant, but it is one of the few plants with an unforgettable aroma. It has a distinct sweet fragrance that is described as butter popcorn, or coriander, or a combination of the two.

Prairie dropseed, also called northern dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepsis, is a clump-forming, warm-season native grass. Emerald green leaves are very narrow (about 1/16 inch wide) and fine textured.

The graceful arching leaves give the plant a fountain-like appearance.

This perennial grass is hardy to zone 3. It is native to tall grass prairies in 24 states, scattered from Wyoming and Colorado east to Connecticut and Massachusetts and as far south as Texas. Native plantings can occasionally be found in the northern half of Illinois. Early Native Americans ground the seeds to make flour.

In late summer, open-airy flower heads appear on thin stems which rise above the clump of foliage. Prairie dropseed is a see-through plant, as you can see between the flower stems. Single flowers are borne in sparse clumps at the end of the stem. Blooms are pink and brown-tinted. Full height of the plant in flower is two to three feet. The plant spread is two to three feet across.

The foliage turns golden with orange hues in the fall, fading to light bronze in the winter. It gets its name from the tiny rounded mature seeds which drop to the ground in autumn.

Prairie dropseed is a very good native grass for the landscape. While it will tolerate a wide range of soils, including clay, it will perform best in a full-sun location with well-drained soil. It is preferred to grow prairie dropseed from a plant, which will become established in two to three years. Seeds are difficult to germinate.

New plants will need watered only until roots become established. Once established, it is very low maintenance. It is heat and drought tolerant; however, it will appreciate a drink during lengthy periods of drought. It will survive in dry to moist soils. As with most native plants, prairie dropseed has no serious insects or disease problems.

One of the few maintenance needs is to remove foliage in late winter or early spring. It is best to cut back the foliage in early spring as birds eat the nutritious seeds.

To learn more about native plants, attend the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners “Planting a Prairie Garden” demonstration on Thursday, Sept. 10, at 5:30 p.m. Program is at the Master Gardener Prairie Garden located in front of the University of Illinois Extension Building, Illinois State Fairgrounds. Free. For more info call 782-4617.

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