Prairie dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepis, is an ornamental grass native to central and eastern North America. It is a common plant in natural grasslands, prairies, and fields. It also makes a great landscaping plant, adding year-round structure and interest to your garden. If you have the right conditions, it will be right at home in a wildlife-friendly landscape or pocket prairie garden.
Grasses are often overlooked as landscaping plants, but many showy grasses can add pizzazz to your yard. Native grasses are essential to a thriving natural habitat, providing food and shelter for wildlife. In the home garden, clump-forming grasses complement almost any landscape style and can be easily incorporated with perennial wildflowers, shrubs, and other grasses.
It doesn’t require any special care and will grow in a variety of conditions, so you are sure to find a place for it. The foliage is long-lasting and attractive. The common name refers to the smooth, rounded seeds that drop out of the seed-bearing panicles. Most other grasses have elongated seeds covered with a sheath, making the seeds somewhat unique among grasses.
Are you ready to learn more about prairie dropseed? Let’s dig a little deeper so you can be prepared to add this plant to your home landscaping project.
Native to eastern North America, this grass thrives in diverse habitats, excluding the far north and extreme south.
Prairie dropseed is native to eastern North America from Canada south to New Mexico and east to Georgia. This grass is fairly widespread within its native range. It typically does not grow naturally in most of the New England states or many of the extreme southeastern states.
This is a classic native prairie grass characteristic of tallgrass prairies and grasslands. It has adapted to human-altered habitats and grows along roadsides, pastures, and meadows.
This slow-growing ornamental grass features arching blades and fragrant late-summer blooms.
Prairie dropseed is an ornamental grass that grows two to three feet tall and equally wide. This clump-forming grass develops a rounded mass of long, thin, gracefully arching blades. The blades are typically bright green during the growing season. In the fall, the blades turn greenish-bronze and will continue adding garden interest throughout the winter, even when the weather becomes cold and snowy.
The flowering stems may reach three feet tall, standing above the blades. The flowers bloom in late summer to mid-fall, forming greenish-beige panicles and tinged with pink. These turn an attractive but subtle light reddish-brown color in the fall and winter. Each flowering panicle has a unique, slightly spicy fragrance.
It is slow-growing and can be slow to become established. Once established, however, this is a long-lived perennial grass. It has a dense, fibrous root system that creates a shallow-rooted network around the base of each plant. Plants will slowly spread outwards from the base but rarely self-seed in the garden, so you won’t have to worry about them becoming weedy or invasive.
Prairie dropseed is grown from seed or the division of mature clumps. Unlike many other grasses, it does not freely self-seed in the garden. If it does drop some seeds and you find a young plant growing near the parent, it is easy to dig out and transplant young self-seeded plants. But the easiest, quickest, and most straightforward way to propagate is by division.
Start from seed by collecting mature seeds, cold-stratifying, and planting in spring.
This grass can be started from seed, but the seeds can be difficult to germinate. However, if you want to try this method, you’ll need to allow some time. In the fall, when the seeds are mature and fall freely from the panicles, collect more seeds than you think you will need because not all of them will germinate.
Replicate natural conditions by cold-stratifying your seeds for three or four months. You can easily do this by placing your collected seeds in an airtight bag or small container and placing them in your refrigerator immediately after you collect them.
In early spring, spread the seeds on moist, clean soil and cover with a dusting of fresh soil. Water them well and keep the soil moist and warm until the seeds germinate. Move your germinated seeds to a sunny location and keep the soil moist while the young plants start to grow. They will start life looking like a single, tiny, thin blade of grass. Seedlings grow very slowly.
Easily divide mature clumps using a sharp spade, then transplant.
Dividing mature clumps is quite straightforward. If you have a clump that is several years old and has broadened around the base, it can be divided and replanted.
Use a sharp spade to dig around the edge of the plant, allowing plenty of room to capture the spread of its fibrous root system. Cut through the center of the clump and remove approximately half to be transplanted to another location. Fill in the remaining gap with fresh soil.
Transplant by digging a hole, placing the plant, and watering generously.
If you have a nursery-grown plant, a division from your yard, or a plant gifted to you from a gardening friend, you will need to transplant it into your landscape in the spring.
Begin the site preparation by digging a hole slightly larger than the plant’s root ball you want to transplant. Carefully remove your plant from its pot and place it in the hole, keeping the soil level with the original soil level.
Refill the space around the roots with fresh soil and give your new transplant a deep watering to help it settle in. If you are growing more than one plant, space them at least three feet apart because each can grow up to three feet across. Keep the new transplants well-watered for the next week or two.
How to Grow
Prairie dropseed is easy to grow and low maintenance. Once your plant is established, it will be practically trouble-free. The secret to success, however, is planting it in a site with ideal growing conditions. Check out the list below to settle yours in the right spot.
Plant in full sun; it needs at least six hours of sunlight daily.
Give this grass a location with full sun, ideally at least six hours of bright sunlight each day. It will be okay with partial shade, but the more sun, the better, as shade-grown plants simply won’t flourish or grow as well.
This ornamental grass thrives in dry to medium moisture.
This plant prefers dry to medium moisture soil. An occasional drought is okay, but if you are experiencing a prolonged drought, offer some supplemental watering. Otherwise, you shouldn’t need to give it any irrigation.
This grass tolerates average, well-drained soil, preferring dry or rocky soil types.
Prairie dropseed does well in average-quality soil and prefers soils that are dry or rocky, where many other plants struggle. It does need well-drained soil so it won’t become waterlogged for prolonged periods.
Climate and Temperature
Prairie dropseed grows in USDA zones 3-9 and is adaptable and tolerant of heat and cold.
This grass is tolerant of various locations and climates and can be grown in USDA Plant Hardiness zones 3 – 9. It tolerates heat and freezing temperatures but doesn’t do well in extended periods of extreme heat and humidity. This is why it’s less reliable in far southeastern parts of the U.S.
Excess nutrients may hinder flowering in poor-quality soil conditions.
It’s not necessary to fertilize this plant. Adding extra fertilizer may encourage your plant not to flower at all because they are adapted to grow in sandier soil types with limited organic matter. Excess nutrients often translate into lush green growth but no flowers.
Trim dead vegetation in early spring for rejuvenated growth.
Very little needs to be done to maintain these plants. If the clumps grow too large for your liking, you can divide them, but this isn’t generally necessary. In early spring, you can cut back last year’s dead vegetation to make room for fresh, new spring growth.
Dropseed grass suits various garden designs, serving as a ground cover or a bedding plant in prairie-themed gardens.
Any place you might want to use an ornamental grass, considering growing prairie dropseed. This plant works well in a variety of garden designs. Use it as a mound-forming ground cover by planting several dropseed grass clumps in a cluster. Add it to your prairie-themed garden, or use it to enhance your wildlife or bird garden. It also makes a great plant for broad borders and edges or along garden pathways.
This grass would look great planted alongside perennial wildflowers or along the edge of a shrub garden. This can be an excellent option if you need plants for erosion control on a hillside. Not only are native grasses practical, they are also very showy. The long-standing attractive vegetation will provide four seasons’ worth of garden beauty.
Looking for an easy-to-manage grass for a container garden? This is a good choice. You can use containers in areas that may be difficult to garden otherwise. Dropseed plants will perform well in containers, especially the more compact cultivars, allowing you to diversify your landscape in a very quick and easy way.
There are just a few cultivars, but if you find these available, they can add a bit more diversity, especially if you’re looking for more compact plants than the native species. A different species, Sporobolus airoides, is also native to western North America.
Sporobolus heterolepis ‘Morning Mist’
This compact cultivar boasts red stems and striking reddish-brown panicles.
‘Morning Mist’ is a cultivar with a more compact growth form. It develops red stems and reddish-brown seed-bearing panicles, making it a very showy ornamental grass for your landscape.
Sporobolus heterolepis ‘Tara’
This dwarf dropseed features 12-inch stems and 24-inch creamy orange panicles in fall.
‘Tara’ is a dwarf cultivar whose stiff, straight stems typically grow only 12 inches tall. The flowering spikes may reach up to 24 inches tall. The panicles turn pale creamy orange for an interesting and attractive display in fall.
Alkali Dropseed, Sporobolus airoides
This native ornamental in USDA zones 4-9 reaches six feet with showy panicles.
Alkali dropseed is an ornamental species native to the western United States. It can grow quite large, reaching six feet high, with large, showy reddish-orange panicles. It is a perennial in USDA zones 4 – 9 and grows best in full sun with rich, moist, well-drained soil.
This grass benefits wildlife, offering seeds for birds and habitat for beneficial insects.
Prairie dropseed offers some value for wildlife, particularly seed-eating birds. Fall and winter birds will forage on the seeds and find cover under the dense leafy clusters. Clump-forming native grass species will also provide habitat and cover for beneficial insects.
This plant is resistant to insects, diseases, deer, and rabbits.
This is truly a low-maintenance plant. It is not typically bothered by insects or diseases. Deer and rabbits don’t eat it. As long as it grows in a location with adequate sunlight and decent soil drainage, it should grow well and be entirely trouble-free.
Frequently Asked Questions
You can easily create a miniature prairie-themed assortment of plants in a sturdy raised bed garden. A dwarf dropseed variety like ‘Tara’ is a great start. Then, add some perennial wildflowers, such as black-eyed Susan, butterfly weed, or purple coneflower, to brighten your plot and attract birds and butterflies. You can create a diverse and colorful garden with other plants, depending on your climate and the space you have available.
If you purchase nursery-grown plants or divide your plants from a mature cluster, they can easily bloom within a year. If, however, you have started plants from seed, it may take at least three years before they are mature enough to start flowering. When a young plant starts to bloom, it may only send up a few flower stalks in its first year. In the following years, it will send up more flowering stems until, eventually, the entire top of the plant is covered with a hazy mist of panicles!
If you are growing a pollinator-friendly garden, it’s okay to add some ornamental grasses, but they won’t attract pollinators like nectar-rich flowers will. Pollinators are primarily attracted to colorful nectar sources typically associated with annual and herbaceous perennial flowers. Grasses are still beneficial for insects, however. Clump-forming grasses provide excellent shelter and protection from predators and weather. They also provide places for beneficial insects to perch or rest while foraging on nearby flowers.
Prairie dropseed is a native ornamental grass that works well in various landscape settings. Its decorative greenery begins with fresh, bright green spring growth and spans the summer with a lush clump of graceful vegetation that develops a reddish tint during the fall. It continues standing through the winter to provide year-round structure and interest. This easy-to-grow perennial grass will surely please and be a welcome addition to your garden.