By Linda Jones.
My neighbors recently replanted their front garden using several species of California native grasses, along with blue-eyed grass and sages. Their garden looks beautiful, so green and textured, and it piqued my interest in our native grasses.
Grasslands once covered vast areas of California, but as much as 95% of the grasslands have been lost, both to development, and to the introduction of non-native grasses and exotics, especially for grazing. Grasslands are now one of the most endangered habitats in our state. If you want to see some of the few remaining large grasslands, visit the Carrizo Plains National Monument east of San Luis Obispo. Alternatively, closer to home, you can visit the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve in Riverside. The grasslands there are mixed with a great diversity of wildflowers. After the winter rains, purple needle grass dominates both of these grasslands, until the non-native grasses take over as the weather warms.
Native Grasses in your Garden
There are 34 species of grass native to San Diego County and they grow in areas as diverse as wetlands and desert. Native Americans harvested the native grass seeds and used the leaves in basket weaving. They burned the grasses periodically after harvesting the seed in order to promote stronger growth and seed production. Native grasses provide important functions for wildlife: nesting materials, food and habitat. Larvae of the skipper butterflies live in the native grasses.
Some other reasons to include grasses in your garden: they are attractive; they add texture and motion to the landscape; they help clean pollutants from run-off; and they sequester carbon. In natural areas, the grasses form clumps with open areas between plants where seasonal wildflowers can grow and provide a beautiful bloom. In addition, once established, most grasses are drought tolerant, although occasional watering during the dry season is good.
Purple Needle Grass
In 2004, Stipa pulchra, purple needle grass, was designated our state grass. At one time, it covered large areas of our state, in coastal hills, valleys and mountains, and into Baja California. It grows in grasslands, chaparral and oak woodlands, as well as other habitats. Before cattle replaced them, native herds of Tule elk, mule deer and pronghorns fed on the needlegrass, and livestock in the grasslands and oak woodlands still use it as a food source.
Purple needle grass is a cool season perennial bunch grass with extremely deep roots, making it a good choice for planting on slopes. Note, however, that it does not transplant well. It grows up to 2-3 feet tall and 3 feet wide. Its leaves are bright green, but appear silvery at a distance. Purple needle grass blooms in May-June and ripe seeds are produced in July, a month or so after seeds are produced by non-native annual grasses. This is one reason native grasses compete poorly with non-native grasses. In fall, the flowering parts, which are up to 4 feet high, move gracefully in the wind, providing an ethereal flow in the garden. Plant them interspersed with other grasses and wildflowers or in a large drift and enjoy the changing light on the flower stems and their movement in your garden.
Linda Jones is a Master Gardener learning about, and interested in, native plants.