Growing Ornamental Grass

Native grasses attract birds year-round to backyards.

Ornamental grasses are full of life. They sway in the wind, bow beneath snow and rustle with a music all their own throughout the seasons.

Keep an eye on those graceful clumps, and you’ll see life of another kind, too. Birds and butterflies love them. Native sparrows, finches and other small birds forage for seeds from grasses in the garden, just as they do in the wild. And more than 100 butterfly species, especially skippers, use certain grasses as host plants.

With so many kinds of ornamental grasses on the market, and new ones joining them every year, how’s a gardener to know which ones are best for birds and butterflies? It’s simple, really. Grow native grasses!

Grasses to Attract Birds

Birds visit all North American native grasses, thanks to the bounty of nutritious morsels on the plumes, spikes or sprays. For juncos, native sparrows, buntings and other seed-eating birds, it doesn’t matter what part of the country the grass is originally from.
Many natives, such as switchgrass, big bluestem and Indian grass, are already garden favorites as ornamentals, both in their original form and in variations like the Heavy Metal cultivar, which is a cool blue-gray.

Don’t expect to see your ornamental grasses bowing under a flock of feeding goldfinches, though. Instead, look for finches, native sparrows, juncos, doves and other birds on the ground beneath the plants in fall and winter, stretching for overhanging seed heads or scratching for fallen seeds.

Grasses for Spring and Summer

In spring, when nesting season arrives, any and all grasses may be the focus of birds’ attention. Dead grass, that is.
Dry grass is lightweight, plentiful, easy to maneuver around and a cinch to collect. Birds aren’t fussy about what they use in their nests, as long as it’s strong and flexible.

Robins, song sparrows, wrens and other birds use coarse grass blades, such as miscanthus, for the main wall of the nest. The dead leaves of other fine-textured grasses often serve as part of the soft inner circlet that lines the nest.

Grasses come into their glory as summer arrives, and that’s when delightful grass skipper butterflies take an interest in them, too. This big subfamily includes about 140 species, all with a definite predilection for grasses as host plants.

So go ahead and grow grasses to your backyard. Fall is still a good time to plant them. You’ll be well on your way to attracting even more birds and butterflies to your space.

8 native picks for birds

  • Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)
  • Blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis)
  • Indian rice grass (Achnatherum hymenoides)
  • Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
  • Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia spp.)
  • Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)
  • Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis)
  • Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula)
  • Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
  1. Michele says

    Not to split hairs or anything, but I counted NINE different plants under the heading that said “8 native picks for birds.” One of them must have been a bonus for us!

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