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Native Prairie Grasses

Native shortgrass prairie remnant at Windlands Park. (Photo by Emmy Ulmschneider)

By Emmy Ulmschneider and Debbie Roland, Master Gardeners

Prairies used to cover a swath of America from Mexico to Canada. But not all prairies are the same. Different conditions dictate each prairie ecosystem, and thus what plants and animals exist in each type of prairie. Shortgrass prairies are semiarid and receive less rain than tallgrass prairies. They are characterized by ankle high grasses like buffalo grass. Tall grass prairies, receiving more water are characterized by taller plants some reaching 8 feet in height. We are fortunate to have remnants of both shortgrass and tallgrass prairies in Texas. In West Texas, we live on what used to be shortgrass prairie, however in our yards we often use tall- grass prairie grasses because of their horticultural interest: They add interest and movement to landscapes because of their size, texture, form and color. And these characteristics are not lost on “rock star” designers such as Piet Odulf, as we wrote in our article on Planning for Year-Round Color. Achieving the effect of a natural landscape takes planning and a design system but that becomes easier if you are familiar with the prairies and the plants that do this naturally.

Previously, we have written in detail about shortgrass prairie grasses Sideoats Grama,(1-24-2021) and Curly Mesquite (08-01-2022) and a tallgrass prairie grass, Deer Muhly, (1-19-21) but here are some characteristics that make them a standout out in an urban prairie.

Side-oats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) is an iconic Texas plant, the state grass of Texas and ranges from Canada to Argentina. It is a staple grass on our short and midgrass prairies. It’s size, erect shape and seasonal color from spring and summer green to fall purple and red, to winter tan are perfect for an urban prairie. But what captures one’s interest are the small oat like seeds which occur along one side of the stem. Red and yellow tinged purple flowers give rise to these seeds which persist into the winter.

Curly Mesquite (Hilaria belangeri) resembles Buffalograss but with a different color and narrow leaves that give it a wavy texture. Like Buffalograss, it can be used as a turf grass alone or combined with other native shortgrass prairie grasses to create a low open area or a turf within an urban prairie.

Deer Muhly (Muhlenbergia rigens) is often described as a tidy and well-behaved version of Pampas Grass. But it is so much more. Deer muhly does have the beautiful arching fountain like effect that characterizes Pampas Grass but it is not invasive or toxic nor can its leaves cut you. What Deer Muhly does have is color and structural seasonal interest throughout the year whether it is an accent plant or in groupings. Slender leaves transition light tan by the fall in the spring. The flower spikes start out yellowish purple in the spring which mature to graceful slender plumes by fall.

An urban prairie is so much more than a Bermuda grass lawn. It is a place of life throughout the year. Check out these sites as you decide on your own short grass prairie:

If you have questions, call the AgriLife office in Odessa at 498-4071 or in Midland at 686-4700.

Additional information, and our blog for access to past articles, is available at Click on Resources.


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