The Difference Between Native Grasses and the Brown Stuff

When  I’m raving about the beauty of native landscapes, I’m not talking about the vast expanses of  brown grass that dominate our hills and valleys.   Nope.   That weedy stuff is NOT native.  Its a mix of exotic invasive plants, mostly annual grasses with some notable perennials mixed in.  The Spanish missionaries brought the first invaders over and the assault has continued since.   We’re left with a such a pervasively different look that many people think that our ‘Golden State’ nickname refers to the brown.

What used to be there?   Tall perennial bunch grasses that stayed green all summer interspersed with smaller flowering plants that combined to make a spring display so spectacular, John Muir stopped dead in his tracks when he first saw it.   Many of our spring flowers still bloom, but the grasses are mostly gone from the wild.  Fortunately, there are nurseries that offer many of the native grasses from seed or in containers so that we can enjoy them in our gardens.  Floral Native Nursery in Chico is an excellent source.

What do the native grasses offer in the garden?  They retain a soft green blush through the summer, thrive on minimal care,  and support beneficial wildlife.  Their upright habits give them a structural quality that plays well with more amorphously shaped plants and ground covers.

Deer Grass (Muhlenbergia rigens). Courtesy Gerhard Bock.

One beauty, Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) naturally occurs in oak savannas and near seeps throughout much of Butte County.  It forms a 2-3′ tall by 4-5′ wide clump of softly arching grass blades with 4-5′ tall flower spikes (inflorescence) in the summer and fall.  Looks great when back lit by afternoon sun.  Deer Grass is easy to grow in full sun to part shade.  If you treat it right – plant it in the fall, little to no summer water, no fertilizer, don’t mess with it much – it will live for a decade or two.


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