There’s brown grass, and then there’s brown grass. Some brown grasses are very sad—namely, the stubbly, shaved brown grass that is your lawn in July. Other brown grasses are beautiful—and not just brown, but gold, pink, tan, and rust-colored. They have plumes, seeds, and pretty drifts of leaves. Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) is one of these. This native prairie grass is popular in gardens because of its year-round beauty, tidy size, decorous behavior, and drought tolerance. The clumps of thin, arching, green leaves are about 1 to 2 feet tall and wide. Pinkish-brown flowers form in late summer on stalks about 3 feet tall. Flowers and seeds are said to have a delicious fragrance that’s reminiscent of popcorn, coriander, or sunflower seeds. Prairie dropseed’s leaves turn golden-rust in autumn.
Common name: Prairie dropseed
Botanical name: Sporobolus heterolepis
Plant type: Perennial grass
Zones: 3 to 9
Height: 2 to 3 feet
• Sun: Full sun. Tolerates heat and drought when mature.
• Soil: Average, well-drained
• Moisture: Dry to medium
• Mulch: None needed
• Pruning: Cut back in early spring.
• Fertilizer: None needed
• By seed or by division
Pests and diseases
• Uncommon, but may have rust, leaf spots, or root rot.
• Sporobolus heterolepis isn’t considered an aggressive colonizer—in fact, it’s slow to get established—but it will spread if it’s in a favorable spot.
• Use prairie dropseed in a perennial bed or a prairie setting, or as a ground cover. It can also be a striking border or low hedge.
• Birds love the seeds.
• Mature plants are drought tolerant.
• Combine prairie dropseed with other dry-soil, heat-tolerant prairie plants, such as butterfly weed, blazing star, and coreopsis.
All in the family
• Rice, corn, barley, wheat, sugar cane, and bamboo are also members of Poaceae, the grass family. Most likely, so is the grass that covers your lawn.
• Sporobolus heterolepis is often used in prairie restorations because of its heat and drought tolerance.
(Text by Elizabeth Noll, photo of Sporobolus heterolepis courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening)