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Gardening 101: Blue Grama Grass

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Gardening 101: Blue Grama Grass

June 21, 2017

Blue Grama, Bouteloua gracilis: “Prairie Grass”

Those of us presently walking the earth missed the heyday of the dry, short grass prairie.  In ancient times it was the western-most north to south boundary of the vast North American grasslands.  Before white settlers arrived, it was home to Native American tribes and grazed by herds of bison.  Today much of it is given over to agriculture, mining and development, but in its original state it was the native habitat of two dominant grasses: Bouteloua gracilis, also known as blue grama or mosquito grass and buffalo grass (Bouteloua dactyloides).

While the prairie in its original state may be lost to us, we are fortunate that these two plants have survived.  Bouteloua gracilis, the taller and more decorative of the two, has become an important ingredient in modern naturalistic garden designs:

The perennial grass Bouteloua gracilis &#8
Above: The perennial grass Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ turns a tawny gold in autumn, mimicking the color of the surrounding hillside in a Napa Valley garden designed by landscape architect Scott Lewis. Photograph by Mathew Millman courtesy of Scott Lewis.

It is nicknamed “mosquito grass” because in summer its distinctive eyelash-shaped flowers are carried on delicate stems high above its clumps of grassy foliage and seem to hover in the breeze like a cloud of insects. Beyond its unusual flowers, Bouteloua gracilis is a tufted warm-season grass that is remarkably durable and easy to grow.

Photograph by Matt Lavin via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Matt Lavin via Flickr.

Bouteloua gracilis is drought tolerant, largely free of pests and diseases and is not bothered by deer. Since it is a native plant, using it in your garden is a gift to wildlife. It provides cover for nests as well as food for birds and other pollinators and small mammals.  If you happen to live on a farm with a herd of cows or other grazing animals, Bouteloua gracilis is so tough that it will survive their munching.

Cheat Sheet

  • Bouteloua gracilis forms dense clumps, making this deciduous grass very useful for erosion control;  its exceptional ability to survive severely dry conditions makes it a perfect component of xeriscape designs.
  • Use it as a ground cover or an easy-care lawn substitute alone or, for more uniform coverage, combined with the shorter buffalo grass, and mowed to a height of about 2 inches.
  • In flower this grass is approximately 2 feet in height and pairs well in meadows and prairie gardens with other medium-size natives such as milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), horsemint (Monarda punctata), goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), and bunchgrass (Schizachrium scoparium).
  • Use it with early spring bulbs that will bloom while Bouteloua gracilis is still winter dormant.
Lostinfog via Flickr.
Above: Lostinfog via Flickr.

Keep It Alive

  • Plant blue grama grass in full sun in zones 3 to 10.
  • Bouteloua gracilis will grow well in the poorest of soils including rocky clay and those with high salt levels, but it does require good drainage.
  • The long vigorous roots of this plant give it amazing drought tolerance, but it is “monsoonal” (i.e. going temporarily dormant and turning brown in long stretches of extremely dry weather before greening again as soon as moisture returns).

Mosquito grass is beautiful in plantings all year round, providing color in fall and interest in winter with its unique flowers that die but remain standing until you cut them back in early spring.

Bouteloua gracilis as a lawn replacement. Photograph by Matthew Millman courtesy Scott Lewis Landscape Architecture. For more of this project, see Vineyard Haven: A Napa Valley Garden That Belongs to the Land.
Above: Bouteloua gracilis as a lawn replacement. Photograph by Matthew Millman courtesy Scott Lewis Landscape Architecture. For more of this project, see Vineyard Haven: A Napa Valley Garden That Belongs to the Land.

For an even more dramatic statement, try the recently developed cultivar ‘Blonde Ambition’ which is a somewhat larger, lighter-colored version of Bouteloua gracilis that adorns the summer landscape with chartreuse flowers that dry to pale gold in winter.

N.B.: To learn why grasses have become the new go-to plant for gardens, see:

Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow and care for various grasses with our Grasses: A Field Guide.

Additionally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for blue grama grass with our Blue Grama Grass: A Field Guide.

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