Bottlebrush Grass

Elymus hystrix (syn. Hystrix patula)

Description & Overview

A native wild rye grass! This clump-forming, cool-season grass does best in moist to dry shade. Its medium-green leaves give rise to a long stalk that stands well above the foliage in late Spring. By July, the stalk opens to an inflorescence that resembles a bottlebrush, hence the common name Bottlebrush Grass. Tolerant of a wide range of conditions, this shade-loving grass is a great addition to restoration projects, parks, in a mixed native garden, or when used as erosion control.

You may also know this plant as Eastern Bottlebrush Grass.

Core Characteristics

Mature Height: 3-4 feet
Mature Spread: 1-2 feet
Growth Rate: Fast
Growth Form: Upright, clump-forming
Light Requirements: Partial Shade to Full Shade
Site Requirements: Dry
Flower: Bottlebrush-like open inflorescence about 6” in length, begins green and fades to tan
Bloom Period: July – August, mid to late summer
Foliage: Green, up to 12” long
Fall Color: Yellow
Fruit Notes: Bottlebrush-like open inflorescence about 6” in length, begins green and fades to tan

Suggested Uses:

Bottlebrush Grass is naturally found throughout Wisconsin in dry to moist open woods in sandy, loamy soil. It can endure drought, heavy clay soils, black walnut toxicity, air and soil pollution, and alkaline pH. When siting, keep in mind that Bottlebrush Grass may suffer in full sun, and is more likely to thrive in moist, well-drained, and fertile soil.

Restoration/Naturalization: Its prolific habit makes this grass an excellent choice for informal settings such as parks, restoration projects, or shade gardens. Bottlebrush Grass will spread making it a useful plant in “hands-off” settings where little maintenance is required or desired. It will readily repopulate the soil where an area has been cleared of buckthorn. If naturalizing an empty, urban plot of land it is interesting to note that Bottlebrush Grass can assist with phytoremediation by metabolizing hydrocarbons such as petroleum, propane, benzenes (aromatics), things that end in ‘-ane’: methane, propane, butane, ethane, octane, etc.

Erosion Control: Bottlebrush Grass, like many types of grasses, has a very fibrous root system that prevents soil erosion, holding the soil together while spreading quickly, giving other plants time to reach maturity.

Butterfly Garden: Use Bottlebrush Grass in a shady butterfly garden! It looks particularly beautiful when backlit by the sun and adds texture and movement. It is also a host plant to several species!

Wildlife Value:

Many kinds of grasses, when allowed to go to seed, provide much-needed nutrition to many species. Songbirds, such as Juncos and sparrows are attracted to the seedheads. Small rodents like moles, voles, and mice feed on seeds.

Bottlebrush Grass is the larval host plant for the Northern Pearly-eye butterfly (Enodia anthedon). Many leaf-mining moths, including the larvae of the Golden Borer Moth (Papaipema cerina), also feed on the foliage and stem.

The foliage itself provides shelter to small mammals and game birds, as well as nesting material for songbirds.

Maintenance Tips:

Regarding pruning, it is best to leave the plants up through winter. Delay pruning until spring and the animals will thank you. In Spring, cut back to the ground before the new growth begins to push.

Bottlebrush grass readily reseeds where conditions are favorable. If you would like to manage its spread, simply remove the seed heads with shears in early autumn. It should be said that this will diminish its benefits to wildlife.

Fertilization is unnecessary.


Black Walnut Tolerant: Yes
Deer Resistant: Yes
Rabbit Resistant: Yes

There are no serious insect or disease issues with Bottlebrush grass.

Seedheads can be susceptible to ergot, a group of fungi that can infect wheat, rye, and barley, and is toxic to livestock. This shouldn’t be cause for concern unless you’re intentionally growing this in mass for cattle.

Leaf Lore:

The genus Elymus is derived from the Greek word for a kind of grass. The specific epithet hystrix refers to its bristly, porcupine-like seedheads.

The Iroquois used the leaves and reed grass rootstocks as a decoction to soak corn seeds before planting. This was used for ceremonial purposes and was believed to help seed germination.

Bottlebrush Grass is geographically widespread, mostly in the Great Plains and eastward, down toward Georgia and northward into Canada.

Companion Plants:

Bigleaf Aster (Eurybia macrophylla), Upland White Goldenrod (Solidago ptarmicoides), Eastern Star Sedge (Carex radiata), and Northern Sea Oats Grass (Chasmanthium latifolium) all have similar growing conditions and would make a lovely mixed palette of heights, textures, and colors.

Elm-leafed Goldenrod (Solidago ulmifolia), Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina), Incrediball Blush Hydrangea (Hydrangea ‘Incrediball Blush’), and Jewel Bush Honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera) grow in similar locations and blooming around the same time that seedheads of Bottlebrush Grass appear.

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