Description & Overview

Side-oats Grama is a warm-season grass native to the southern (mostly) half of Wisconsin. It has a vigorous root system that fuels its growth of blue-green linear leaves that can get to lengths of 18 inches. By mid-summer, once culms have risen, unique, spike-like panicles rise about a foot or so above the leaves. Between 10-30, yellowish-red floral spikes dangle on one side of the culm, adding to its peculiar appearance. As the flowers become seeds, they change to a tan color contrasting with the blue-green foliage. Come fall, the plant turns a beautiful golden brown, and occasionally red with purple tones.

Core Characteristics

Category: Grasses

Wisconsin Native: Yes

USDA Hardiness Zone: to zone 3

Mature Height: 2-3 feet

Mature Spread: 1-2 feet

Growth Rate: Perennial

Growth Form: Clump forming

Light Requirements: Full Sun

Site Requirements: Dry-moderate moisture, sandy, loamy soil

Flower: Red, orange, yellow

Bloom Period: August-September

Foliage: Blue-green, 18" long

Fall Color: Red, orange, yellow

Urban Approved: Yes

Fruit Notes: 10-30 small non-comb-like spikes along one side of each seed stalk

Suggested Uses

Side-oats Grama is great for erosion control thanks to its deep root system and adaptability to most soil conditions. It has weak to moderate tolerance for soil salinity but performs very well in our alkaline soils. This is a wonderful addition to a restoration project and will certainly provide excellent soil stabilization where erosion control is needed. It has also been used on mine reclamation sites.

Another use Side-oats Grama lends itself is for meadow or prairie plantings. Naturally found in open spaces, this grass will be right at home. The palatability of this grass is high and is one of the most important range grasses. It remains green later in the fall and will emerge before other grama grasses (Bouteloua spp.).

This plant plays nicely in a landscape setting, as it stays short in spring. Add this to your wildflower garden for a delicate appearance that accents other plants.

Wildlife Value

Side-oats Grama has been used to improve game bird habitat and is recommended in grass mixes to provide cover for Bob White quail, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Eastern Cottontail rabbits. Birds such as Wild Turkey, Ruffed Grouse, Pheasants, and sparrows also love the ripe seeds.

Leonard’s Skipper (Hesperia leonardus) and Ottoe’s Skipper (Hesperia ottoe) both use Side-Oats Grama as host plants for their larvae.

Many grasshoppers will feed on the foliage, including the Large-headed Grasshopper (Phoetaliotes nebrascensis), Two-striped Mermiria (Mermiria bivittata), Velvet-striped Grasshopper (Eritettix simplex), Pasture Locust (Orphulella speciosa), Pasture Spur-throat Grasshopper (Melanoplus confusus), Autumn Yellow-winged Grasshopper (Arphia xanthoptera), and Red-winged Grasshopper (Arphia pseudonietana).

Several leafhoppers are specialist feeders, while stink bugs and mealybugs will also browse the plant.

Maintenance Tips

Side-oats Grama may be cut back in winter but this is not necessary. Do not cut back more than twice a year as this may cause more harm than good.

Be sure to surround with companion plants of a similar height as this grass does not tolerate shading by other plants.

Pests/Problems

Black Walnut Tolerant: Yes
Deer Resistant: Yes
Rabbit Resistant: No

There are no serious pests or diseases of Side-oats Grama.

Deer will sometimes browse this plant, but it is not their preferred source.

Leaf Lore

The genus Bouteloua is named after Spanish horticulturist Claudio Bouteloua (1774-1842). The specific epithet curtipendula means “shortened hanging” alluding to the pendulous hanging flower spikes.

The Kiowa who had killed an enemy with a lance in battle wore Side-Oats Grama; the grass resembled the feathered lance. The Tewa bundled dried grass to be used as hair brushes and brooms. The Navajo used the plant as a postpartum medicine, to heal wounds on animals, and used it in ceremonies.

Bouteloua curtipendula can stabilize PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) to a significant degree in contaminated soils by accumulating pollutants mostly in the roots.

This species is the state grass of Texas!

Companion Plants

Other plants found on similar sites include:

  • Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
  • Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
  • Hairy Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis)
  • Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
  • Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea)
  • Prairie Blazingstar (Liatris pycnostachya)
  • Hoary Vervain (Verbena stricta)
  • Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
  • Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
  • Hairy Penstemon (Penstemon hirsutus)

Other companion plants that can help remediate soils include:

  • Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)
  • Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides)
  • Black Willow (Salix nigra)
  • Duckweed (Lemna minor)
  • Brown Mustard (Brassica juncea)
  • Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
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Written by Beth DeLain