Years ago, I learned to appreciate the beauty and value of ornamental grasses in a yard. I tried several and have finally settled on my all-time favorite — Morning Light miscanthus sinensis for its tolerance to wind, saltwater and soil. It's a forgiving grass for the most part, and the beauty of its reddish plumes are gorgeous in the autumn sun.
I avoid species like pampas grass because it grows too large, and river oats because it sows seeds where I don't want them.
There are many other ornamental grasses to enjoy, and their benefits are numerous for our environment and wildlife.
You can learn how to identify native grasses during a meeting at 6:45 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 15, of the John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society at the York County Library at Battle Road, just before you reach York High School on Route 17. Doug Deberry, an assistant professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester and a professional wetland scientist, will give a talk about grass identification. The program is free and open to the public.
"DeBerry will provide an easy-to-understand talk about grass identification, and he's very entertaining" says Helen Hamilton, chapter past president. She and Gus Hall, a retired botanist from the College of William and Mary, have written a grass-inclusive book, called "Wildflowers and Grasses of Virginia's Coastal Plain," that hopefully will soon find a publisher, she adds.
"Grasses add a lot of landscape interest, especially in the winter when their stems and seed heads are the only plants left in a garden ..and their tall slim blades contrast nicely with broad-leaf plants," says Hamilton.
"They are important as soil stabilizers, as well as cover and food for wildlife."
Here are three of Hamilton's favorite native grasses featured in the book:
Yellow Indian grass, or Sorghastrum rutans. Growing 2-8 feet tall, and topped by a large, plume-like, golden-brown seed head, the grass is attractive in the fall when the flowers produce dangling yellow stamens. The leaves are slender and blue-green, turning orange-yellow to purple in the fall. Widespread in Virginia, most U.S. states and Canada, the grass grows in limestone soils, open woods, road banks and fields. Many birds like its seeds, and it's a larval host plant for the pepper and salt skipper butterfly.
Saltmarsh cordgrass, or Spartina alterniflora. This perennial grows to 8 feet tall on stout hollow stems often soft and spongy at the base. Flowers appear alternately on the ends of the stems, in narrow rows, whitish-green in bloom and tan in fruit. Salt crystals can often be seen on the leaves during the growing season. The cordgrass is the dominant plant of low salt marshes on the Atlantic Coast.
Purpletop, or Tridens flavus. Purpletop is easily recognized in late summer by its loose, open, purple flower-clusters in a distinctive weeping form. This slender perennial grows to 4 feet tall, the upper stem, branches and spikelets covered with a waxy, greasy substance. The large purple seeds are widely spaced on thin panicle-branches. Purpletop is common along roadsides, fields, and edges of woods, and is the larval host to four species of butterflies.
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