Sunday, December 4, 2011

Fall Colors - Grasses

Fall or autumn colors are not always easy to find in Texas. Often, leaves quickly turn from green to brown with no shades of red, yellow, or orange in between. 

Over the next couple of posts, I will share some of the colors of the fall season found in my prairie. This post will focus on the grasses. Subsequent posts will cover shrubs and trees and then flowers.

Internet references state that the 'Dallas Blues' variety of Switchgrass, Panicum virgatum, was discovered growing along a railroad track in Dallas, Texas. The leaves are a power blue color (hence, the name) in the spring and summer and wider than most other Switchgrasses. By late summer, the five foot tall grass is topped with reddish purple panicles (flowers). When fall comes around, the leaves are ablaze with shades of yellow and red.

It is hard to believe that I am considering removing this colorful grass from my prairie. I really like it, but Switchgrasses are fairly aggressive growers. They quickly form large dense clumps with deep roots. I removed five clumps this summer and that was no easy task. I am debating whether to remove the grass entirely. Although drought tolerant, 'Dallas Blues' Switchgrass requires a little extra water in the summer to look its best. This year's drought and my lack of watering caused the lower leaves to turn yellow and brown by midsummer. 

The Pine Muhly, Muhlenbergia dubia, was a standout in the prairie this year, especially after it sent out many buff colored flower spikes. The thin leaves of the Pine Muhly are beginning to change to the same buff color as the flower spikes. 

The drought severely affected the appearance of the Indian Grass, Sorghastrum nutans, this year. Normally the grass produces numerous flower heads that rise up to seven feet above the leaves, but this year there were just a couple of flower heads and they were only a few inches higher than the grass. Click here to see how this same grass looked last year.

Bushy Bluestem, Andropogon glomeratus, prefers moist soils and grows in the front yard rain garden. Of course, even a rain garden gets dry when it does not rain. The drought stunted the growth of this grass and some of the lower leaves turned brown early because the plants did not get enough moisture during the summer. There is a hint of the fall copper color common to Bluestem grasses that is beginning to show on the leaves.

This Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, is showing its fall color. I planted this grass earlier this year. This is my first time to grow Big Bluestem. Despite the drought, it took hold fairly quickly. I am looking forward to seeing more of this rich, coppery color next season. 

Finally, another of my foggy Thanksgiving morning pictures showing Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, among the prairie flowers, yuccas and cactus. The copper color of the Little Bluestem was darker and more intense this morning due to the moisture in the air.

My prairie saw its first freeze of the season this past Monday morning when temperatures dropped to 31 degrees. We are expecting additional freezes in the upcoming week that will surely turn most of the plants brown. However, all of these grasses will maintain their autumn color and stature through the winter. In February, I will cut them to the ground to make way for a new season's growth. 


  1. I have to say, your garden looks FAR better than mine right now!!! I will never complain about our rain, but it does tend to turn things into mush in the fall. I love your 'Dallas Blues', too bad it's such a thug...good to know, though...I'm trying to decide on a panicum for the parking strip next year...sheesh...there are WAY too many varieties! I just love the form of the Pine structural, yet light...really striking. I've spent all season this past year trying to find a local seller for Andropogon...did you find yours locally or online? High Country Gardens sells a few varieties on their website...but I do like to see my plants in person if at all possible :-) So sad about your Sorghastrum...they looked amazing last year. During my trip back to NE this fall, they were amazing in the fields...they never seem to get quite that tall in the wild, but in gardens are stunning! As always, your garden looks've done such a great job layering everything...the textures and colors are fabulous!

  2. Hard to beat little blue. I have Dewey blue Panicum. I have the same issues. But I planted two more, #1. I also have the bushy bluestem, which i dug up in a ditch, they too did not fare well. Definelty need to try the pine muhly.

  3. Your garden looks beautiful in its fall colors. I really like the pine muhly. It forms a little 'halo' effect and really catches the light nicely.

  4. Each of your posts is a treat of discovery! I especially enjoyed the beauty of your grasses but even more especially your helpful reports from personal experience. My yard is in Plano, too.

  5. Scott, in addition to Dallas Blues, I have grown Heavy Metal and Shenandoah switchgrass. All of them are equally aggressive. My experience is that their clumps nearly double in size each year. They are also a lot of work to clean up in the spring. After spending the weekend on my hands and knees cutting back grass this past spring, I decided it was time for a change that would require a little less effort in the backyard prairie. I am still debating ideas. A woodland garden is under consideration.

    A good percentage of my plants come from native plant sales and are not named varieties. I think the plants at the native plant sales are usually indigenous plants and tougher than hybrids. I collected the Indian grass and bushy bluestem near a railroad track within a couple of miles of my house.

    Interestingly, the layering you mention is most effective looking lengthwise across the prairie and was not planned. The planned layering, as viewed from the street to the house, is not quite as effective primarily because it lacks depth.

    Greggo, Dewey Blue and Prairie Sky are a couple of other switchgrass varieties I have grown. Both of them tended to flop over in my garden. I dug them out too. (I see a trend.) To expand on my comment to Scott about collecting bushy bluestem, I found mine growing on an unmowed slope near a commercial property. They either overwatered their grass or had a sprinkler leak which kept the slope wet enough to allow bushy bluestem to grow. They must have cut back their watering or fixed the leak because the bushy bluestem has not grown there for the last couple of years.

    Thanks HolleyGarden. Everyone likes the pine muhley. It is a beauty. Porcupine grass would be another good name for pine muhley except a Miscanthus already has claim to that name.

    Margaret, thanks for the comments. I am glad you enjoy the posts. Thanks for sharing that you are in Plano too. Do you grow any native plants?

  6. The colors of the switchgrass are truly lovely. I wonder if you could transfer one into a pot, then sink it into the ground to discourage it from spreading? Might be worth a try.

    Love those foggy Thanksgiving Day pics. Hope the purple prickly pear has found a place in your lovely prairie!

  7. Sure like the looks of the pine muhly. Might have to search for that. Do you have any Lindheimer's muhly? Very drought tolerant and well behaved. I did not realize the Dallas Blues had such pretty fall color. Yes, it is pretty, but if any plant is too aggressive in my garden, it usually ends up having to go. Just makes too much work to keep on top of it. I know you're loving this rain the last few days!!

  8. Tamara, I think it would be hard to contain switchgrass. I have seen it split black plastic pots because the roots get so dense. Thanks for the purple prickly pear. It is still enjoying the pot. I thought I would wait until warmer weather before sticking it in the ground.

    Toni, I do have a Lindheimer's muhly. I had a plant that I removed after it got really large and I decided I wanted a change. The plant I have now is a volunteer seedling from the original plant.


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