Grasses, mostly perennial clumping varieties, have made an impressive debut onto the modern landscape scene.   We have recently seen garden grasses featured in books and articles, planted in “meadows,” “grasslands,” and as “accents,” bringing “movement” and “drama” to the landscape.  In fact, the current hot trend for using ornamental grasses has sought to bring back to our gardens a refreshing “natural” look.  But for a truly natural look (true to nature), only native grasses will suffice.  Exotic species, that is, grasses from foreign lands, simply appear too “exotic” often too gaudy, to fit in to the subtle California landscape.

We have many beautiful native grass species here in California, so there is no need to search Asia, Australia, Africa, Europe, South America, nor far a-field on our own continent to find nice varieties for our gardens.

As you will see in this special feature, “Masses of Grasses,” there is a native grass type for every situation you could imagine in the garden.  Use them with confidence.  Since grasses are often prolific seeders, and their seeds usually germinate readily, careless use of exotic grasses may actually create new weed problems both in the garden and in the surrounding country.  If native grasses reseed in your garden in is called recruitment.  If exotic (foreign) species successfully reproduce, it would be called an invasion.

Check this information and try a few native grasses in your garden.  They are the perfect compliment for just about every native design theme, and they are super easy to grow.  We have a lovely grass section at Tree of Life Nursery, so come on over to compare them and see them in action… planted near rocks, flowering plants, in meadows, dry streams, alongside paths and in pots.  They grow fast, they change with the seasons, and they add a truly natural look to the native plant garden.

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Basic Plant Information Comments and Picture – Click on images to see larger format or more
Plant name Achnatherum coronatum
Common Giant Needle Grass
Size (H x W) 6 x 3
Growth Season Cool
Flower Spring, seed heads remain upright for months
Synonyms Stipa coronata
Occurs naturally in full sun on dry gravelly rocky often sloping ground in chaparral at elevations up to 5000′ in southwestern CA and adjacent Mexico.  Well-suited to sunny, dry sites.

CalPhotos Images of Achnatherum coronatum

Plant name Agrostis pallens
Common San Diego Bent Grass
Size (H x W)
Growth Season Cool
Flower Spring, delicate seed heads add lovely movement to the garden
Synonyms A. diegoensis
Adapted to shady woodlands in the mountains and foothills and open, north-facing meadows along the coast from San Diego to Sonoma.  Sought after for quick, even growth, lawn candidate with some irrigation.

CalPhotos Images of Agrostis pallens

Plant name Aristida purpurea
Common Purple Three-Awn
Size (H x W)
Growth Season Cool
Flower Spring, delicate seed heads add lovely movement to the garden
Attractive year-round, purple three-awn is uniquely colorful when flowering.  The inflorescenses are strongly red-purple at first bleaching in the sun to light straw color.

aristida  massed

Plant name Bouteloua gracilis
Common Blue Grama
Size (H x W) 1 x 1
Growth Season Warm
Flower Summer, showy flowers like eyelashes or pennants
Synonyms B. oligostachya
Low growing species is native to a vast majority of the US, growing in the hottest, driest parts.  Semi-evergreen – cool weather shuts off growth, but dormancy is brief in mild climates.  Lawn candidate.

bouteloua  lawn

Plant Name Deschampsia caespitosa
Common Tufted Hairgrass
Size (H x W) 1 x 1
Growth Season Cool
Flower Spring, seedheads remain through summer
Medium sized, densely tufted, coarse bunchgrass.  It grows in moist meadows of the higher mountains in California and along the coast as far south as Santa Barbara.  Good for a wetter spot in the garden or can thrive planted as a lawn with some irrigation.

Deschampsia caespitosa

Plant name Distichlis spicata
Common Salt Grass
Size (H x W)
Growth Season Warm
Flower Inconspicuous
As the name implies, a very salt tolerant, creeping grass native to coastal and low desert regions in California, in generally salty conditions.  Soil stabilizing, resilient and tenacious.

Distichlis spicata and Iva hayesiana

Plant name Elymus glaucus
Common Blue Wild Rye
Size (H x W) 2-4 x 5+
Growth Season Cool
Flower Summer
Spreading cool season grass, great groundcover, soil stabilizer.

CalPhotos Images of Elymus glaucus

Plant name Festuca californica
Common California Fescue
Size (H x W) 2-3 x 2
Growth Season Cool
Flower Spring, airy and decorative 1-2′ above foliage
Robust medium bunchgrass with glaucus evergreen foliage associated with brushlands and deciduous oak forests.  Excellent grass for shady or filtered light settings, airy flowers add nice contrast.

Festuca californica

Plant name Festuca rubra ‘Patrick’s Point’
Common Creeping Red Fescue
Size (H x W) 3 x 3
Growth Season Cool
Flower Spring
Medium-sized loosely tufted, fine leafed grass that spreads slowly by underground rhizomes.  This very blue selection of F. rubra is from the north coast; the species is found as far south as Big Sur.  Requires irrigation, prefers richer soils in southern California. An excellent, durable alternative to European Blue Fescue and Blue Oat Grass.
festuca patricks point
Plant name Leymus condensatus
Common Giant Wild Rye
Size (H x W) 4-8 x 6
Growth Season Cool
Flower Summer, large and tall flower stalks, tan
Synonyms Elymus condensatus
Large, very tough, drought tolerant grass. Native to slopes and ravines, this grass tolerates heavy soil and drought.  Spreads slowly from rhizome.  Strong candidate to cover large areas with little water.

Leymus condensatus

Plant name Leymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’
Common Canyon Prince Wild Rye
Size (H x W) 3-4 x 3
Growth Season Cool
Flower Summer, tan flower stalk contrasts with foliage
A compact and blue-leaved form of Leymus condensatus.  Tolerates sun and shade, irrigation and drought.  Stunning glaucus foliage makes this a brilliant accent, very tough.  Excellent substitute for New Zealand Flax.

Leymus canyon prince

Plant name Leymus triticoides
Common Creeping Wild Rye
Size (H x W) 2-3 x 6+
Growth Season Cool
Flower Summer
A sod-forming spreading perennial grass, native to moist meadows at low to mid elevations in California.  Dependable groundcover in all soils, tenacious, slope stabalization.

Leymus triticoides

Plant name Leymus triticoides  ‘Grey Dawn’
Common Grey Dawn Creeping Wild Rye
Size (H x W) 2-3 x 3+
Growth Season Cool
Flower Summer
A selection of Leymus triticoides chosen for its bluish gray leaf blades, same soil stabilizing quality.

Leymus triticoides grey dawn

Plant name Melica imperfecta
Common Coast Range Melic
Size (H x W) 1-3 x 2
Growth Season Cool
Flower Spring, tall flower stalks with beautiful salt and pepper two-toned flowers
The first of the native grasses to green up to a very bright green in the fall/winter months and the first to sleep in summer.  Attractive tawny foliage holds shape through summer or judicious watering can keep plants nearly evergreen.

Melica imperfecta

Plant name Muhlenbergia rigens
Common Deergrass
Size (H x W) 2-3 x 2
Growth Season Warm
Flower Summer, narrow flower stalks can reach 5′ tall and wide
Beautiful form year-round, reliable in virtually every situation except deep shade, stunning as an accent plant or planted in a drift.  Stunning flowers during the hottest part of the year.  Native to both dry or moist places, very adaptable.

muhlenbergia rigens and path

Plant name Nassella cernua
Common Nodding Needle Grass
Size (H x W) 1-3 x 2
Growth Season Cool
Flower Spring, large flower and seedheads ‘nod’
Synonym Stipa cernua
A true cool season grower native to sandy dry slopes in open grasslands and coastal scrub.  Summer dormant, ‘nodding’ seed heads and bright green foliage in spring.
Plant name Nassella lepida
Common Foothill Needle Grass
Size (H x W) 2 x 2
Growth Season Cool
Flower Spring, large flower and seedheads
Synonym Stipa lepida
Native to dry slopes, oak grasslands, chapparral and coastal scrub.  A true cool season grower, summer dormant, lacks distinctive ‘nod’ of N. cernua, and has finer foliage – otherwise, very similar.  Re-seeds readily.

nassella rock bed

Plant name Nassella pulchra
Common Purple Needle Grass
Size (H x W) 2 x 2
Growth Season Cool
Flower Spring, airy and decorative purple fades to silvery
The California state grass, this perennial once covered most of California’s emblematic grasslands before the introduction of weedy annual grasses and exotics.  Eye-catching in late spring when translucent  awns are sidelit or backlit.  Re-seeds readily.

nassella pulchra

Plant name Sporobolus airoides
Common Alkali Dropseed
Size (H x W) 2 x 2
Growth Season Cool
Flower Summer, pink stalks add texture and movement
Native to open grassy habitats all over the West.  An under-appreciated, durable and decorative grass, especially in the summer months.  Reliable in all soil types, and as the name implies, tolerates alkaline conditions.

CalPhotos Images of Sporobolus airoides

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