Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Monday, October 24, 2011

Have You Switched To Switchgrass?

Panicum virgatum 'Northwind'
I did and am I ever glad.

It's the perfect partner for the ex-asters, vernonia, juniperus, phlox, chasmanthium and hypericums that make their home at Clay and Limestone.  I value panicums for its strong vertical habit, showy flowers and interesting winter silhouette.

Panicum virgatum has a long history on this continent. It's native to the tall grass prairies of the Great Plains from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean.  Grasses like switchgrass, big bluestem, little bluestem and Indian grass dominated the tall grass prairies and were grazed by bison, deer and elk. It’s an upright, warm season bunching grass that can still be found growing in ‘remnant prairies’ and along interstates. 

Or, in your favorite garden center where delicious cultivars have made it to the market!  Once again, we have European  breeders to thank for making another marvelous native attractive to us! They've brought us lovely cultivars and spurred American breeders to get on the native grass bandwagon. I have two current favorites!

‘Northwind’ is without a doubt the most upright grass I’ve ever encountered. Heavy rains, and you know we have heavy rains in Middle Tennessee, have not brought it to its feet. The color is an interesting olive green that works well in my garden. But, holy-moly, what really makes this grass attractive is the long season of golden color.  In my garden it begins to golden up in September and continues all winter.  Some call it a tawny gold. I call it perfect.  Panicum prefers full sun, and moist, fertile soil; however, the plant will tolerate sand, heavy clay, dry slopes and boggy areas and less then full sun in my garden.  Drought tolerant. Hardy to Zone 4. Grows five feet tall.

‘Cheyenne Sky’ is a small red switchgrass that I am hoping can completely replace annual Pennisetum ‘Rubrum’ in my garden.   It’s been described as  a sturdy little plant that should remain standing throughout the winter.  I’ve read that  it can take  wet winters and even periods of standing water! That sounds perfect for this garden with our wet winters. Panicum prefers full sun, and moist, fertile soil; however, the plant will tolerate sand, heavy clay, dry slopes and boggy areas.  Hardy to Zone 4. Grows three feet tall.

Just in case I haven't made my case to convince you to switch to switchgrass.  Consider this~They fill the garden with movement and beauty all year long, while providing  food and shelter for visiting mammals, birds and insects.

Not bad for a grass.


Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee.  She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone.


  1. Thank you thank you, dear Gail, for singing the praises of this fine grass! I am totally on board with you, and happy that the breeders have made some snazzy names to get the attention of the plant buying public. We have several of these and agree, Northwind stands up to all that weather can throw at it and looks superb all winter. It does play well with others, too.

  2. That looks lovely in your garden! I love any plant that adds movement and, of course, food and shelter for those birds and insects.

  3. I just purchased one at a PPSMT meeting and LOVE it! Mine is 'Northwinds'. It is the punctuation mark to all my frilly perennials and fits in so well. Love 'Northwinds' very much. You switched your blog to a .com? Very neat!

  4. The straight panicum virgatum was an easy one to grow from seed, so you can make lots for not much $$ - seems to put up with the clay here, so far anyway :)

  5. I've never tried any of the panicum cultivars, because I didn't think my garden could offer them the right conditions. It's not open enough, and I don't think they'd get enough sun. But I have carex, stipa and miscanthus varieties, so hey, I might give one of these a go. They look fabulous in your garden, Gail!

  6. Love that Cheyenne Sky. I'm still trying to convince my husband that grasses are desirable in the garden and this one will help my argument!

  7. Absolutely wonderful native grasses! Boy, I'd love to have a spot to grow some here in AZ but somehow I don't think it can happen. Still, I am always so "into" native plants that I love seeing them and reading about them, and native grasses are SO important!!! Thanks so much for this post!

  8. I am going to have to look at one of my 'weed' grasses - it might be a variety of switch grass. It is one of my prettier weeds. Fortunately I have a great book to help with the id - Weeds of the Northeast. Your photos make switchgrasses seem most desirable.

  9. Hi, Gail!
    Well, you've certainly sold me. :)

    That 'Northwind' variety looks like it would be tough enough to stand up to the abuse in my Street Garden (aka ditch. :)

  10. I love the volume of the Northwind cultivar, it's gorgeous, and I bet it looks fabulous swaying in a light breeze too!

  11. These are, indeed, such complements to the garden...just lovely! I did not realize there were so many varietal colors.

  12. I may need to give 'Cheyenne Sky' a try... I LOVE my switchgrass, but it's a whole lot lax in wetter weather like we're experiencing this year. (I have 'Rotstrahlbusch' because it was supposedly "the reddest of the reds"... HA!)

    p.s. Another native grass you should try is sorghastrum nutens, aka Indiangrass. I have 'Sioux Blue' and the color is amazing. Very light blue, upright, with awesome golden flower sprays in the fall. I bet you would like it if you don't already have some!

  13. Gorgeous photos, Gail; 'Northwind' definitely is a beauty. I have to tell you a little story...last year I decided to finally take the plunge and add a few grasses to my garden. I went to my favorite nursery, where the sales associate patiently explained the virtues of each type of grass and I went back and forth trying to decide. I finally settled on a panicum--'Shenandoah'. I had no idea what I was doing, but am I ever glad I picked the panicums. I love these grasses!

  14. I love switchgrass. I have some Panicum virgatum, and it tolerates drought and some shade. Love its look and sway int he wind, too.

  15. Hi Gail,
    I made it back to read this post. I am enjoying the panicums I found to plant after you recommended them this spring. I also like my little bluestems. I have trouble getting photos of the panicums, though. You sure captured yours well.

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