In addition to adding texture and drama to gardens, this tough ornamental grass is incredibly versatile and useful. As a warm-season bunchgrass, it grows in clumps four to six feet tall from late spring through early fall before going dormant during the colder months. It thrives in many weather and soil conditions, including high temperatures, drought, and nutritionally poor soils. Growing the grass in full sun will increase its sturdiness and its production of airy, delicate seed heads that paint the landscape a color-wash of reddish-purple tones. The deep root system, which keeps the soil rich in nutrients, spreads slowly over time and helps to make this an important plant for soil conservation and phytoremediation projects (decontaminating soil, air, and water). The plant has been utilized for forage production with horses and cattle (the Latin word panus means “a swelling” or “millet”) and also as game cover for game birds and deer, and it is still being heavily researched as a source of alcohol for biofuel.
Switchgrass (aka tall panicgrass, Wobsqua grass, wild redtop, and thatchgrass) is one of the dominant species of North America’s tallgrass prairie ecosystem. It’s a self-seeding crop and hardy perennial; a switchgrass stand can survive for over ten years. To increase longevity and appearance of landscaped switchgrasses, shear back in spring to within a few inches of the ground and divide every few years to produce new plants.
Native habitats include both wet and dry soils in midwest prairies and eastern savannas, open woods, gravel bars and stream banks, and along railroad tracks. In the landscape, consider massing it on slopes or in areas that need erosion control. If adding to garden beds, place at the rear or along the edges to avoid masking other plants. To create a flowing screen, space individual plants 12” apart. Young plants do well in large containers.
Prefers full sun and tolerates part shade.
Grows 4-6’ (occasionally 8’) tall and 2-3’ wide at a fast rate.
Prefers dry to moist,well-drained soil, sand, loam, or clay with neutral, mildly acidic, or mildly alkaline pH. May flop in richer soils.
Flowers with burgundy anthers and stigmas develop July-September in 2’-long inflorescences, or groupings. Seeds are tinged with pink or dull purple and turn golden brown along with the foliage in fall.
Several fine-bladed, 2” leaves—medium or bluish green—appear along the length of each culm, or stem, turning golden in fall and fading to beige in winter.
Host plant for 27 Lepidoptera species, including northern pearly eye and northern broken dash butterflies, hobomok skipper, the pink-streak moth, and 12 specialist moths. Other insects that feed on the plant include larvae of grass leaf-miner moths, gall flies, stink bugs, aphids, leafhoppers, mealybugs, leaf beetles, and grasshoppers.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Switchgrass may be used as a substitute for wheat straw in many situations, including livestock bedding, straw bale housing, and as a substrate for growing mushrooms. It is sometimes grown in order to be harvested and turned into pellets to be used as a food supplement for livestock.
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