An elegant prairie grass for formal landscapes
Nebraska Statewide Arboretum
Prairie dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepis, is one of the most elegant prairie grasses for the landscape, and also one of the most dependable. It has a graceful, weeping habit and shiny, ribbon-like leaves. The common name refers to the teardrop shape of the seed.
The genus Sporobolus combines the greek “sporos” meaning seed with “bolos” for throwing, referring to the ease with which ripe seed are pushed from the base of the grass spikelet. The seeds are very nutritious and a favorite of some birds. There are nine species of dropseed native to Nebraska – two annuals and seven perennials. All are useful in restoration plantings but prairie dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepis, is the one that deserves a space in any modern landscape.
By mid-spring, several weeks earlier than other warm season prairie grasses, it forms a dense tuft of bright green foliage with a very soft appearance. The fresh new growth combines well with spring-flowering plants like dwarf iris and pasque flower. Though it takes several years to grow into a mature plant, it doesn’t need dividing and doesn’t die-back from the center. By mid-summer it forms an attractive, fountain-like mound of foliage up to 2 feet high and wide. It is attractive enough for a formal garden or can be planted in large groupings for a prairie-style lawn or meadow garden. In late summer into fall, the foliage can turn orange to copper. Airy, open flower panicles high above the foliage emit a pungent fragrance when bruised, often described as a combination of cilantro and fresh popcorn. The scent is faint, but noticeable even when passing by a mass of seedheads on a cool, dewy morning.
This grass will reward you with a veil of abundant seedheads when planted in full sun and improved soils. It will grow well in part-shade and clay or sand, but flowering and fall color may be reduced. For plants growing in harsh, dry areas or during extreme droughts, provide extra water during the summer months to improve flowering. It makes an outstanding border plant and a complement to perennials with strong upright growth or those with broad foliage.
Prairie dropseed looks great in combination with vertical plants such as shell-leaf penstemon or gayfeathers, or as a border plant to hide the bare legs of leadplant or prairie asters. The veil of mist-like flowers combines well with other mid to late summer bloomers like nodding pink onion and stiff goldenrod.
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From June through September, John Etchart spends most of the day driving a tractor through hayfields below the mountains near Meeker in northwestern Colorado.