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

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Wildflower Wednesday: Panicum virgatum

My Panicum virgatum is still standing tall in the garden, I hope yours is, too.
It dances all winter in the wind...

Panicum virgatum or switchgrass as it's commonly known, 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 (including Tennessee and other southeastern states)* 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. These grasses are sometimes called "The Four Horsemen of the Prairie". (source)   

Would you forgive me if I say that Panicum virgatum is a work horse in my garden? Keep reading to find out why I love this plant and value it as a hard worker.

Despite its long historical association with most of the United States, it's rather ironic that it took European plant breeders to open our eyes to the versatility and beauty of Panicum virgatum. They've brought us lovely cultivars and spurred American breeders to get on the native grass bandwagon. It seems that each year a new cultivar is introduced to gardeners. I look at them and hope that their best wild characteristics haven't been bred out of them. I love a good looking plant that also has great wildlife value. 

One of my favorite cultivars is 'Northwind'.  I am happy to report that it's as wildlife beneficial as the straight species.

'Northwind' planted in 2009

Panicum virgatum is climatically adapted throughout the most of the United States, except California, Oregon and Washington state and in all of Canada except, British Columbia and Alberta. Wow...that means almost any of us can successfully grow them.


Switchgrass is a perennial, warm season native grass. It is drought and salt tolerant, needs no fertilizer and does well in shallow, wet soils and even droughty soils in the eastern USA. Its long roots improve soil and water quality by absorbing nutrients and sequestering carbon dioxide. The tall bunch grass benefits wildlife, offering optimal nesting and cover.

I am thrilled that it's happy in my shallow soil that's dry in the summer and wet in the winters. That's one reason it's called a work horse in my garden.

Panicum virgatum has year round beauty. Summer color is an interesting olive green that works well with Phlox, Iteas, Penstemons and other native wildflowers.

It's a warm season grass and produces growth from April to September. Look for the airy, pink-tinged flower spike blooms that rise only about a foot or two above the foliage. The inconspicuous flowers with burgundy anthers and stigmas dangle from the well-branched panicles. Teardrop-shaped seeds about 1/8 inch long develop from single-flowered spikelets. (source) The seed plumes persist well into winter, with the seeds eaten by songbirds and upland game birds. Self-sowing is usually minimal but can be prolific under ideal conditions.

It's the perfect partner for most summer blooming wildflowers. My favorites are Phlox, Echinaceas, Rudbeckias and Hypericums. It really shines in the fall when Vernonias, Solidago, and the ex-asters bloom.

But, holy-moly, what really makes this grass attractive is the long season of golden color starting in September in my garden and continuing all winter.

 fall color is especially gorgeous in the late afternoon when it's backlit by the setting sun

It's a tawny gold for several months, but, by the end of the winter it's a striking pale blonde that looks incredible in my almost total brown landscape!

Late winter is the best time to cut it back! 

I promise, you won't be sorry to let it stand all winter.

                         Floppy grasses have softened the sharp corner of my house along the path to the porch

 I am on a mission to convince my neighbors and any readers who still have their mow and blow crews buzz cut their ornamental grasses back in October to adopt late winter cut back as their preferred practice. Btw, the only plants I cut back after the first frost are Phloxes, because their stems can harbor a rather destructive phlox bug. I leave everything else standing until late winter.  

Here's why I cut my grasses back in late winter or early spring before the new growth emerges for:

  •  wildlife: they provide food and shelter. Ground-foraging birds (Sparrows, Juncos, Robins) eat the seeds that persist on the grass most of the winter and shelter in the foliage
  • winter interest with warm colors and dancing in the wind
  • ease of maintenance: it's easier to cut cut after a winter of being buffeted around
  • the little grass skippers that lay eggs and overwinter on base of switchgrass stems

Just in case I haven't made my case to convince you to switch to cutting switchgrass down in late winter, consider this: They fill the garden with movement and beauty all year long.

Not bad for a plant, especially in winter.


 The Particulars

 Common Name: switch grass

Type: Ornamental grass

Family: Poaceae 

Native Range: North America and most of Canada

Zone: 5 to 9 

Height: 3.00 to 6.00 feet 

Spread: 2.00 to 3.00 feet 

Bloom Time: July to February 

Bloom Description: Pink-tinged 

Sun: Full sun to part shade 

Water: Medium to wet 

Maintenance: Low 

Comments: Its long roots improve soil and water quality by absorbing nutrients and sequestering carbon dioxide. 

Tolerates: Drought, Erosion, Dry Soil, Wet Soil, Black Walnut, Air Pollution.


Uses: Naturalize, rain garden, butterfly garden

Flower: Showy

Good Fall color and winter interest/color

Wildlife value: In addition to the many birds and mammals that use Switch Grass, the Tawny-edge Skipper and the Delaware Skipper also use it as a host plant.  This bunch grass benefits wildlife, offering optimal nesting and cover. Switchgrass is a particularly beneficial warm season grass for use in riparian buffer zones

 * May Prairie in Middle Tennessee



 Welcome to Clay and Limestone's Wildflower Wednesday celebration. I am so glad you stopped by. WW is about sharing and celebrating wildflowers from all over this great big, beautiful world. Join us on the fourth Wednesday of each month. Remember, it doesn't matter if they are in bloom and, it doesn't matter if we all share the same plants; it's all about celebrating wildflowers. Please leave a comment when you add your url to Mr Linky.

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. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. Hands down one of my favorite grasses! I adore its four season interest and wildlife value plus it is so easy in the garden. Last year I didn't cut mine down until spring (because I adore the stems) and found birds nesting in one of them. We use them for privacy too. Works just as well shrubs.

  2. I have some Panicum plants ready for planting when the ground dries out a bit. I hope they do as well for me as they've done for you Gail :) Just like you, I don't start cutting stuff down until February, so good for wildlife and it means there's a good excuse to get outside in February. It's our Big Garden Birdwatch event this weekend, so fingers crossed the birds come a-visiting then xxx

  3. Lovely tribute to a garden stalwart!

  4. I have this beautiful grass that looks so delicate yet is so tough. I can't wait until mine gets large enough to look like a big clump.

  5. You had me at "tolerates black walnut". I'm off to source it, although if it's also browsed by deer, I may have a problem.

  6. Ohhhh, my gardens and property needs this! I do have a question. I've been reluctant to add native grasses since I am allergic to lawn grasses. Is the pollen wind blown and as irritating as rye, KY blue grass, crab grass, and others?

    1. I haven't been able to find a definitive answer.

  7. Paired with the blue bottle tree and backlit by low sun - stunning!

  8. I am interested to hear how it stands up to your winter. I grow Panicum virgatum too, but not Northwind, and it flops completely by November or December! I find the Calamgrostis and Miscanthus stand up better here. Perhaps just due to location?

    1. The straight species flops a bit, but not 'Northwind'.

  9. Wow, that golden glow is just stunning! We’ve had more sun than usual this winter, and I’ve noticed my Morning Light Miscanthus showing off its glow much more than usual. Love that about it.

  10. Dwarf papyrus to keep your grass company.


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson