It’s that time of the year when ornamental grasses are coming into their own, and Canadian wild rye (Elymus canadensis), a North American native grass, is no exception. Its bright green flower spikes appear on graceful, nodding stems above clumps of bluish-green leaves. As late summer turns into fall, the spikes turn a soft tan color, along with the leaves, and birds eat the mature seeds. This cool-season bunch grass is found in the wild across the continent. It adapts to nearly any type of soil, including sand, clay, and gravel.
Common name: Canadian wild rye, nodding wild rye, wild rye
Botanical name: Elymus canadensis
Plant type: Perennial grass
Zones: 3 to 8
Height: 3 to 6 feet
• Sun: Full sun to part shade
• Soil: Prefers average, well-drained soil but tolerates almost any kind.
• Moisture: Average to moist
• Mulch: Mulch to preserve moisture in the soil.
• Pruning: Cut down last year’s stalks in late winter.
• Fertilizer: None needed.
• By seed or division
Pests and diseases
• Vulnerable to brown patch, damping-off, powdery mildew, rust, and tar spot.
• Although wild rye isn’t a bully, it will reseed under the right conditions. To take advantage of this tendency, plant it in a meadow or prairie garden where you want it to naturalize.
• Wild rye is typically a medium-sized grass (though it can get very tall), so it fits well in the middle to back of a perennial border. Its flower spikes bloom in late summer and remain through the fall and winter. Combine with black-eyed Susans, butterfly weed, and coneflowers.
• Use wild rye as a ground cover on slopes or hills.
• Birds like the seeds, so leave seed heads on through the winter.
All in the family
• The Poaceae (grass) family provides humans with some of our most important food crops, including rice, wheat, oats, barley, and corn. The rye we use in rye bread is in this family as well, but it is in a different genus than wild rye—its botanical name is Secale cereale.
• A notorious relative of wild rye is quackgrass (Elymus repens), an invasive weed which is believed to have been accidentally introduced to North America from Europe about 400 years ago. Don’t let this relative’s bad reputation scare you, though: wild rye is much better behaved.
Where to buy
• Michigan Wildflower Farm, Portland, MI, 517-647-6010, www.michiganwildflowerfarm.com.
• Prairie Nursery, Westfield, WI, 800-476-9453, www.prairienursery.com.
• Shooting Star Nursery, Georgetown, KY, 866-405-7979, www.shootingstarnursery.com.
(Text by Elizabeth Noll, photo of Elymus canadensis courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening)