Close up of ornamental grass seed heads catching the sunlight
(Image credit: sakhorn38)

Native plants are the easy-care alternatives to exotic, high-maintenance plants in the garden. Native grasses are also an excellent and versatile alternative to traditional lawns. They thrive without fertilizer, tolerate almost any well-draining soil, and attract local wildlife.

If you live in the West, look into California native ornamental grasses and you may be astonished by the number and range of available choices. Nevada residents can also consider Nevada native grasses. All are hardy and versatile, having adapted over centuries to their particular ecosystems and climates.

California Native Ornamental Grasses

The hardest part of putting native California grasses in your landscape will be selecting among the many beautiful plants available. If “native grass” makes you think scrubby, it’s time to discover the ornamental features of native California grasses.

Let’s start with California’s official state grass, purple three-awn (Aristida purpurea), a thoroughly lovely and graceful grass. It grows from 1 to 2 feet (31-61 cm.) tall and delights with the purple grass heads that cover the stalks all year long, waving in the breeze.

Ornamental Grasses California

Another extremely attractive California native grass is called silver beardgrass (Bothriochloa laguroides ssp. torreyana -- formerly Andropogon saccharoides). Some suggest that it may not have started out in California, but it certainly grows in the wild throughout the state.

Silver beardgrass has exceptional ornamental features. The grass grows to some 18 inches (46 cm.) tall with numerous erect flower spikes extending a few feet (1 m.) farther. Each spike is topped by silky little puffs that are utterly enchanting. Plant this grass in masses for a spectacular display. In autumn, the show continues as the leaves turn fiery shades. This grass needs little care, if any, and is also very drought tolerant.

Nevada Native Grasses

Another regal native grass that can work well for Nevada or California residents is deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens). Deergrass is tall – with each clump growing to 5 feet (1.5 m.) tall and wide. They send out so many spiky flowering stems that they are compared to giant pincushions. Sited in a sunny space with elbow room, deergrass only needs a weekly drink to look its ornamental best.

Deergrass will bring native Nevada birds to your yard. These can include sparrows, buntings, grosbeaks, titmice, crows, and jays.

For something shorter, consider bluebunch fescue (Festuca idahoensis). It is a perennial grass, sometimes called bunchgrass fescue, and doesn’t get above 2 ½ feet (76 cm.) tall. The stems are blue-tinted green and grow in tufts in full sun to partial shade. An added benefit? Bluebunch fescue attracts birds to your yard, including finches, waxwings, nuthatches, sparrows, chickadees, mockingbirds, and woodpeckers.

Teo Spengler

Teo Spengler has been gardening for 30 years. She is a docent at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Her passion is trees, 250 of which she has planted on her land in France.