Updated: May 24
Kentucky's diverse landscape is home to various native grasses important to the state's ecology and economy.
These grasses have adapted to thrive in unique environments, from tallgrass prairies to wetlands. They also provide crucial habitats for wildlife as well as food for livestock.
In this post, we'll explore 17 of the most fascinating and essential native grasses of Kentucky and discover how they contribute to this iconic state's beauty and biodiversity.
Whether you're a nature lover, a farmer, or simply curious about the world around you, there's something here for everyone to learn and appreciate.
Let's dive in and discover the wonders of Kentucky's native grasses.
Why are Native Grasses Important?
Native grasses are important for several reasons.
They provide essential habitat and food sources for wildlife, including birds, small mammals, and insects.
Native grasses also play a role in soil stabilization and erosion control, and they are often more drought-tolerant and require less maintenance than non-native species.
Additionally, many native grasses have ornamental value and are great for landscaping and restoration projects.
Native grasses are vital to healthy ecosystems and contribute to biodiversity and ecological resilience.
Native Grasses of Kentucky
While numerous grass species are native to Kentucky, the ones highlighted in this list are typically available from native plant nurseries. Consider adding some to your property as you scroll through. In addition, you can visit our Kentucky ecoregion article to find which region you live in to help choose a species.
1. Little Bluestem
Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is one of the most widespread native grasses in Kentucky, found in various habitats, from prairies to woodland edges. Its distinctive blue-green foliage turns reddish-orange in the fall, adding a splash of color to the landscape. Little Bluestem is also an important food source for wildlife, providing birds with seeds and serving as a host plant for butterfly larvae.
2. Pink Muhly Grass
Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) is a beautiful and showy ornamental grass native to the southeastern United States, including Kentucky. In the fall, its delicate pink blooms create a stunning display that attracts pollinators and delights onlookers. While not as ecologically significant as other native grasses, Pink Muhly Grass is valued for its aesthetic appeal. As a result, it has become a popular landscaping choice for gardens and public spaces.
3. Bottlebrush Grass
Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) is a cool-season native grass that grows mainly in partly shaded woodlands. Its distinctive seed heads resemble the brush of a bottle, hence its common name. This grass is significant for wildlife, providing cover and food for birds, small mammals, and insects, and is also valuable for erosion control on steep slopes.
4. River Oats
River Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) is a shade-tolerant native grass found along Kentucky's rivers, streams, and other wetland areas. It has unique flattened seed heads, resembling oats, that sway beautifully in the wind, making it valued for its ornamental qualities in landscaping. It also plays an essential ecological role, providing habitat for various wildlife and contributing to the stability of stream banks.
5. Big Bluestem
Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) is a tallgrass prairie species once widespread across the Great Plains, including parts of Kentucky. It is a critical component of the historic tallgrass ecosystem, providing habitat for many species and playing an essential role in nutrient cycling and soil health. While much of Kentucky's tallgrass prairie has disappeared from agricultural and urban development, efforts to restore and preserve this important ecosystem are underway, including the reintroduction of Big Bluestem to appropriate habitats.
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is a warm-season native grass that grows throughout Kentucky's grasslands, savannas, and prairies. It's highly versatile, from use for forage, biofuel, erosion control, and wildlife habitat. With its deep roots and ability to withstand drought and flooding, Switchgrass is an essential component of Kentucky's natural landscape and a valuable resource for various human and ecological needs.
7. Silky Wild Rye
Silky Wild Rye (Elymus villosus) is a cool-season native grass that commonly grows in deciduous woodlands throughout Kentucky. Its long silky hairs on the seed heads give the grass a soft, delicate appearance. Silky Wild Rye provides valuable cover for wildlife in woodland settings. In addition, it's often planted for erosion control and restoration of disturbed areas.
Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) is a warm-season native grass, another iconic tallgrass prairie species. Its distinctive golden seed heads and tall stature make it a standout species in the landscape. Indiangrass provides important habitat for wildlife and is often grown for forage, hay, and erosion control.
9. Purple Lovegrass
Purple Lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis) is a warm-season native grass found in Kentucky prairies, savannas, and open woodlands. With its delicate purple seed heads and fine-textured foliage, it has excellent ornamental qualities. Purple Lovegrass is also great for stabilizing soil, providing cover for wildlife, and food for grazing animals.
Broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) is a warm-season native grass that grows in a wide range of habitats throughout Kentucky, including old fields, meadows, and forest edges. While it is considered a weedy species in some areas, Broomsedge provides habitat for wildlife and is an excellent option for stabilizing soil on disturbed sites. Historically, it was the straw base for producing handmade brooms, hence its common name.
11. Tall Dropseed
Tall Dropseed (Sporobolus compositus) is a warm-season native grass found in Kentucky prairies, meadows, and other open habitats. It's slender stems and delicate seed heads make it a beautiful addition to the landscape. Tall Dropseed is an important food source for wildlife, providing seeds for birds and small mammals and nesting material and structure for native bees.
12. Sideoats Grama
Sideoats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) is a warm-season native grass found in Kentucky prairies, savannas, and other open habitats. Its distinctive seed heads, drooping along one side of the stem, give the grass its common name. Sideoats Grama is an important forage species for livestock and also provides essential habitat for wildlife, including birds, small mammals, and insects.
13. Canada Wild Rye
Canada Wild Rye (Elymus canadensis) is a cool-season native grass found in various habitats throughout Kentucky, including prairies, savannas, and open woodlands. Its distinctive seed heads resemble wheat or rye, making it a beautiful addition to the landscape. Canada Wild Rye is also an important food source for wildlife.
14. Eastern Gamagrass
Eastern Gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides) is a tall, warm-season native grass found in western Kentucky's wet prairies, stream banks, and flood plains. Its deep root system makes it highly resistant to erosion, and is commonly grown for forage and hay production. Eastern Gamagrass is also crucial for wildlife, providing cover and food for birds and small mammals.
15. Prairie Dropseed
Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) is a warm-season native grass typically found in dry prairies but is rare in Kentucky. It's fine-textured foliage and airy seed heads make it a popular ornamental grass in gardens and landscapes. Prairie Dropseed is also an excellent food source for wildlife and plays a role in soil stabilization and erosion control.
16. American Beak Grass
American Beak Grass (Diarrhena americana) is a cool-season native grass found in woodlands and shady areas of Kentucky. Its distinctive seed heads resemble a bird's beak, making it easy to identify. American Beak Grass is one of the few native grasses that can tolerate heavy shade conditions, making it a valuable landscaping plant for woodland sites.
17. River Cane
River Cane (Arundinaria gigantea) is a native bamboo species that grows in wetland areas throughout Kentucky. It provides valuable habitat for numerous wildlife species, including birds, small mammals, and insects. River Cane also has cultural significance for Native American communities, who used it for various purposes, including construction and craft production.
Kentucky's native grasses are not only beautiful to look at but also serve vital ecological functions.
From preventing soil erosion to providing habitat for various species, these grasses are essential to Kentucky's natural heritage.
By understanding and appreciating the importance of native grasses, we can all contribute to preserving and protecting the ecosystems they inhabit.