California Native Bunchgrasses
By Rob Moore
Photo Credit: Rob Moore
One of the questions I always ask my clientele during the preliminary design phase is if they like California native bunchgrasses. From a design perspective, bunchgrasses offer a plethora of benefits both aesthetic and functional. Attributes include contrast, the element of motion, habitat restoration, visual interest, and historical value.
Experts conclude that native grasslands in California are among the most endangered ecosystem in the United States. Due in most part to historical land use and introduced disease, it is estimated that less than 1% of our state’s original grasslands remain. Fortunately, as forward-thinking home and business owners, we can address this issue by including California’s native grasses in our residential and commercial landscapes.
A short list of favorites for the garden include Purple Three-Awn Aristida purpurea, Blue Grama Bouteloua gracilis, California Fescue Festuca californica, Giant Wild Rye Leymus condensatus, California Melic Melica californica, Deer Grass Muhlenbergia rigens, and Purple Needlegrass Nassella pulchra (our state grass here in California). Grass-like species such as Sedges Carex spp. are a great addition to a California-friendly, native garden as well.
In their natural environment, native grasses typically occur in groups with bare ground between them where wildflowers grow. Even though some gardeners feel grasses look messy; in consideration of wildlife value, letting things go to seed and having an area that's 'messy' is good for seed-eaters and butterflies. Alternatively, hand trimming at the appropriate time of year is preferable from an aesthetic perspective; hence an occasional grooming to remove dead leaves and spent flower stalks or a seasonal coppice is perfectly acceptable and will keep them looking tidy.
Most of the aforementioned ornamental grasses will prefer a sunny spot in the landscape and will be tolerant of drought once established, though most species will look better with occasional summer water.
Like many native plants, grasses play an important role in providing cover, nesting materials, and additional food sources for beneficial, garden-friendly wildlife. Coupled with the addition of contrast, the element of motion, habitat restoration, and historical value, I’m confident that you will enjoy the addition of California’s native bunchgrasses to your garden!