Wild About Utah: Native Grasses
In recent years, there has been an emphasis on ornamental landscape plants that provide bee and butterfly habitat. But did you know that you can also choose landscape plants to support Utah birds and other wildlife? In particular, ornamental grasses can provide both food and cover for birds and other wildlife and also materials for nest building.
A few ornamental grasses that you might consider planting in your landscape are Indian rice grass, blue grama grass, little bluestem, Indiangrass, and Miscanthus.
One of the most attractive native grasses, and the state grass of Utah, is Indian rice grass. This native, cool-season grass grows from 1 to 2 ½ feet tall. Widely adapted in Utah, it is important in foothill and semi-desert areas of the state, providing forage for both livestock and wildlife throughout the year. It has a lovely, airy texture and the seeds are an important food source for many birds and small mammals.
Blue grama grass, also native to Utah, is a warm-season grass with seed stalks standing 6 to 20 inches tall. In the wild areas of Utah, blue grama grass grows on plains, foothills and woodlands and tolerates a variety of soil conditions. In home landscapes, the distinctive seed heads of blue grama are very attractive and are sometimes described as resembling eyebrows.
Little bluestem, a warm-season perennial grass, grows from 1 to 2 feet tall. This drought-tolerant, native grass grows in many Utah plant communities including desert shrub, ponderosa pine, and pinyon-juniper. In ornamental landscapes, little bluestem transitions from blue/green colored grass blades during the growing season to a reddish color after the first frost, providing lots of winter interest in the landscape as well as food and cover for birds.
Indiangrass is a native, warm-season perennial grass with tufted stems reaching up to 5 feet tall. This grass is found in the hanging garden plant communities of southern Utah where annual rainfall is low but flooding from runoff water is common. It may also be associated with other riparian plants such as sedges, rushes, and willows. A tall, upright grass, Indiangrass has showy, golden bronze seed heads in the fall that provide seed for songbirds.
Though not native to Utah, Miscanthus is another ornamental grass that provides food for birds. This large grass, growing up to 6 feet tall, has flower plumes above the foliage in the fall and you may see birds searching the ground underneath throughout the winter looking for leftover seeds.
Hopefully you have one or more of these grasses in your landscape already, but if not, fall is still a good time to plant them. And don’t cut these grasses back as we head into the colder months of the year. They provide a great deal of color and interest to the winter landscape and will continue to provide food and cover for birds and wildlife throughout the season.
As our weather warms into spring, birds will be particularly focused on the dried-out grass blades that remain, using coarse blades for the main wall of nests and finer blades as part of the softer, inner lining.
So, go ahead and try some ornamental grasses in your home landscape or maybe plant more. You’ll be well on your way to attracting and supporting birds and other wildlife.
Sound credit: Kevin Colver