Native Plants for Georgia Part IV: Grasses and Sedges (B 987-4) University of Georgia Extension This publication describes and illustrates 48 grasses and 10 sedges native to Georgia. It is not the intent of the authors to describe all native grasses and sedges, but those that are most widespread or those having practical application for wildlife habitats, erosion control, restoration projects or landscape culture. A few of the plants are noted as being weedy or invasive and may not be appropriate for use in cultivated landscapes. Nonetheless, they are included to assist the reader in identifying them because they are abundant in the wild. 2017-04-19 14:47:40.64 2013-04-16 17:49:34.0 Native Plants for Georgia Part IV: Grasses and Sedges | Publications | UGA Extension Skip to content

Native Plants for Georgia Part IV: Grasses and Sedges (B 987-4)

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Gary Wade, Ph.D., Extension Horticulturist (Retired)
Elaine Nash, Naturalist
Ed McDowell, Master Gardener, Amateur Botanist and Wildflower Photographer
Brenda Beckham, Master Gardener and Plant Enthusiast

Few plants on Earth are more versatile or have a greater impact on the environment than grasses. They are major contributors to the total net photosynthesis and production of biomass in the world. They tame the erosive splash of raindrops, stabilize soil and assist the infiltration of water into the ground and aquifers. They interact ecologically with a diverse number of flora and fauna, both above and below ground, including insects, fungi, birds and mammals. Many insects, for example, rely on native grasses as a substrate on which they lay their eggs or as a larval food source in order to complete their life cycles. These same insects, in turn, are eaten by birds and mammals higher up the food chain. Many species of mammals, birds and insects also rely on grasses for shelter and nesting materials.

No other plant has played a more vital role in the development of civilization than grasses. For thousands of years, wild grasses have been cultivated and domesticated for human consumption and as feedstock for livestock and herds of wild animals. Most of the cultivated grains we use today, including wheat, barley, rye, oats, corn, rice, millet and sorghum, were developed from wild native grasses. Over the years, plant breeders and agronomists have made dramatic improvements in grain yields. One of the most notable was Norman Borlaug, an Iowa-born scientist and winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. He developed a high-yielding disease-resistant wheat that helped feed the world and saved millions of people in impoverished nations from starvation.

The grass family, Poaceae, is the fourth-largest plant family on Earth, with more than 10,000 species. Globally, grasses grow in all terrestrial habitats, including forests, glades, savannas, open deserts, prairies, wetlands, stream banks and floodplains. Yet grasses are relatively young plants in terms of their evolutionary history. The earliest evidence of fossilized grass pollen was found in South America and dates to the Paleocene Epoch, 55 to 65 million years ago. To put this in perspective, dinosaurs never ate grasses because grasses evolved after dinosaurs were extinct.

The southeastern United States is home to about 1,400 native grass species. Many of these species are managed for erosion control or wildlife habitats. Others have been domesticated as pasture grasses and other types of animal forage, such as grain or baled hay. A few species, such as Muhly Grass, Switchgrass and River Oats, have become popular in the landscape trade.

This publication describes and illustrates 48 grasses and 10 sedges native to Georgia. It is not the intent of the authors to describe all native grasses and sedges, but those that are most widespread or those having practical application for wildlife habitats, erosion control, restoration projects or landscape culture. A few of the plants are noted as being weedy or invasive and may not be appropriate for use in cultivated landscapes. Nonetheless, they are included to assist the reader in identifying them because they are abundant in the wild.

This publication further separates grasses into two categories: warm-season grasses and cool-season grasses. Warm-season grasses begin growing when daily temperatures are between 60°F and 65°F. They grow in the summer, flower and fruit in the fall, and then go dormant after the first frost. Examples are Broomsedge, Bluestems and Indian Grasses. Cool-season grasses grow in the late fall, winter and early spring, flower and fruit in the late spring, then go dormant in the summer. Examples include Oatgrasses, Witchgrasses and Bluegrasses.

Grasses vs. Sedges

Grasses and sedges belong to two different plant families. They are sometimes difficult to tell apart, but they can be distinguished from one another by differences in their structures, habitats or life cycles.

  • Grass stems are typically round or flat and hollow inside, while those of sedges are triangular and solid inside.
  • Grasses have swollen nodes or joints along their stems, while sedges do not.
  • Grasses produce both vegetative and floral stems, while sedges produce only floral stems.
  • The leaves of grasses are usually two-ranked, which means they occur in two rows on opposite sides of the stems, while the leaves of sedges are three-ranked and occur in three vertical planes along the stems.
  • The flowers of many grasses are showy, but those of many sedges tend to be inconspicuous.
  • Grasses are most abundant in dry, open habitats, while sedges prefer moist to wet areas.
  • Grasses can be either annuals or perennials, but sedges are primarily perennials.

Establishing and Managing a Native Grass Meadow

Whether one is interested in the ecological management of an existing native grassland, converting an old pasture to a more diverse mixture of forbs (broadleaf herbaceous plants) and native grasses, establishing native grasses under utility easements or incorporating native grasses into a cultivated landscape, a great deal of planning is required to do the job properly. Creating a native grass meadow is a lot different from planting a mono-culture lawn with just one type of grass. Natural grass communities are diverse ecosystems with many different grasses growing in harmony with a variety of forbs. Grasses typically occupy between 65 percent and 70 percent of the total space.

Listed below are some suggested guidelines for planning, establishing and managing a native grass meadow. Each one has many alternatives and options.

Analyze the site

  • Identify and make a list of ALL of the existing plants on the site, including native plants, exotic plants and weeds, as well as cool-season and warm-season annuals or perennials.
  • Determine the sunlight exposure throughout the day.
  • Note the topography and drainage of the site, including slopes, elevated areas that might stay drier than surrounding areas, and low spots where water can collect after rain.
  • Determine the size of the area to be planted. There are 43,560 square feet in 1 acre.
  • Take a sample of the soil and have it tested through the state soil testing laboratory. There is a nominal fee for this service (for information on soil sampling and testing, see http://aesl.ces.uga.edu/soiltest123/Georgia.htm). A soil test provides recommendations for lime and fertilizer prior to planting. However, while lime may be required to achieve the proper pH in the soil for optimum plant growth, fertilizer is not recommended for native grass meadows because it will encourage weeds that compete with grasses.
  • Make note of any existing plants that have to be eliminated before the meadow can be established. If the site is overgrown with invasive plants, brush or scrub trees, it may be a candidate for restoration instead of rehabilitation. On the other hand, if the site contains a significant number of native plants, then adding a few native grasses to increase the diversity of the site may be all that is needed.
  • Right-of-ways under power lines will require frequent monitoring during establishment because birds roosting on the lines and mammals grazing on plants in the open field may introduce unwanted weed seeds.
  • Observe plant communities adjacent to the planting site and the potential for wind, water or wildlife to transport seeds from those communities into the grass meadow.

Determine your budget and equipment needs

  • Determine early in the planning process how much money the project costs and how much time and energy must be devoted to the project, not only for the initial installation, but also for follow-up management.
  • Determine the types of plants or seeds needed and their costs. Some grasses can be established from seeds, while others can be established from plugs (small well-rooted plants grown from seed). Consider the cost of each of these alternatives. Seeds or plugs will need to be ordered in advance. Some native grasses simply are not available in the trade, so seeds or plants must be harvested from the wild. Often this requires the assistance of a knowledgeable botanist to identify plants and to determine the best time to harvest seeds or plants. Sometimes the Georgia Native Plant Society (www.gnps.org) or the Georgia Botanical Society (www.gabotsoc.org) sponsor field trips for persons interested in collecting native plants or seeds. It is illegal to harvest seeds or plants from private property without first obtaining permission from the landowner, and the collection of plants or seeds from land owned by federal or state agencies is prohibited. Most native grasses available from nurseries are propagated from seed.
  • A mower will be required during establishment to prevent annual weeds from competing with and shading out the new plants. A mower that can be adjusted to a cutting height of 5 to 6 inches is ideal.
  • A sprayer for applying herbicides will be needed to eliminate unwanted vegetation prior to planting or to target specific weeds during establishment.
  • Large restoration sites may require cultivation at two-week intervals prior to planting to eliminate unwanted vegetation. A contractor may be required for these large tasks, which will add to the cost.

Plan for a diverse plant community that matches the site conditions

  • The typical Southeastern grass meadow is a mixture of both cool-season grasses and warm-season grasses, a few sedges and a variety of forbs, like legumes, sunflowers, mints, goldenrods and milkweeds. Make certain the newly introduced plants require the same sunlight exposure, soil type and drainage as that of the existing native vegetation.
  • Including a variety of forbs along with grasses will create a more natural balanced environment. However, make certain the mature heights of the forbs added to the mix do not exceed those of the grasses. Otherwise, shading can occur, and the grasses will struggle to get established.
  • Where weeds are a problem, a mixture of grasses and forbs that are taller or more aggressive than the weeds may be needed.

Options when preparing the site

  • If any type of soil disturbance is done, expect weed seed germination. Regular cultivation for one or two growing seasons prior to planting may be necessary to reduce weed competition. A combination of disking and shallow cultivation can be effective. Disking places some weed seeds too deeply in the soil to germinate. Light cultivation six to eight weeks after disking will kill any newly geminated weeds on the soil surface. Repeat these steps as necessary.
  • Sites dominated by weeds may require an aggressive approach using a combination of cultivation to encourage weed seed germination and herbicide applications to kill the newly germinated weeds. Repeated herbicide applications will gradually deplete the weed seed bank in the soil and reduce successive weed populations.
  • In some areas, controlled burning to eliminate existing vegetation is allowed. Check with your local office of the Georgia Forestry Commission to determine whether controlled burning is allowed in your area and the requirements for doing it.
  • Heat sterilization (solarization) is another option for small areas. This involves placing sheets of clear plastic over the unwanted vegetation and sealing it along the edges with soil or rocks. The elevated temperatures under the plastic will kill herbaceous weeds, but it may not eliminate established woody vegetation. This technique works best during the warm summer months.

Planting

  • When purchasing seeds or plants, make certain they are adapted to your geographical region. Plants produced from seed harvested from native grasses growing in the western prairies or desert regions of the U.S. may not be well adapted to the Southeast, even if the species is recommended for the area. Botanists and horticulturists often refer to “ecotypes” that are subspecies or varieties adapted to a particular set of environmental conditions. A plant?s place of origin or “provenance” is known to influence the adaptability of its offspring to a particular set of environmental conditions.
  • Warm-season grasses are best planted from April to June, while cool-season grasses do best when planted from September to October.
  • On sites prone to erosion, a cover crop, such as winter wheat (an annual), may need to be planted along with the grasses and forbs to help stabilize the soil during establishment.
  • Plant forbs in colonies of several plants between the grasses. Clusters of forbs will not only be more visible, but also will do a better job of attracting pollinators.
  • Seeds need to be in contact with the soil for best germination. When planting plugs, place the crown (the area between the base of grass blades and the roots) slightly below ground level.
  • Native grasses grow well in soils having low fertility. Avoid fertilizing after planting because it will encourage weed competition.
  • Supplemental irrigation may be necessary during periods of limited rainfall for at least three to six weeks while the seeds are germinating and the plants are establishing.

Management

Managing a grass meadow requires annual observations as to how the plants are moving around, re-seeding and spreading. Also observe the balance of grasses to forbs and make note of unwanted weeds. A grass meadow is an ever-changing panorama as the balance of grasses to forbs is influenced by changing weather patterns and new plants introduced by passing wildlife or wind. Unlike a highly manicured cultivated landscape that is carefully managed and manipulated by mowing, pruning and fertilization, Mother Nature manages a native grass meadow.

  • One of the greatest challenges is to distinguish the good weeds from the bad weeds. Some weeds are tame and offer little competition for the grasses and forbs. Others are considered “thugs” that spread rapidly from rhizomes or seeds and are hard to control. Examples are Burdock, Yellow Star Thistle (annual), Canada Thistle, Bermudagrass, Nutgrass, Crab Grass (annual), Crown Vetch, Canada Goldenrod, Johnsongrass and Chinese Lespedeza.
  • In natural environments, grass meadows are managed by grazing from wildlife or livestock, or they are burned back by wildfires or controlled burns. Occasional mowing to a height of 5 to 6 inches can substitute for grazing. Mowing from late May through June will scatter seeds and rejuvenate cool-season grasses, then mowing again in late winter will scatter seeds and rejuvenate warm-season grasses. To encourage forbs to seed in and multiply, rake off the residue after mowing. Raking scatters the seeds of forbs, helps seed-to-soil contact and allows light to reach the new plants. Otherwise, if the planting is well-balanced with grasses and forbs, leave the mowing residue in place to act as natural mulch.
  • Controlled burning is an alternative to mowing in areas where outdoor burning is allowed. Check with your local division of the Georgia Forestry Commission for laws and regulations regarding controlled burns. Annual burning once the grass meadow is fully established (three to five years after planting) will rejuvenate the planting.

Guide to Plant Descriptions

Native grasses and sedges described in this publication are listed alphabetically according to their botanical name. Grasses are divided into two categories: warm-season grasses and cool-season grasses. The appendix contains a Guide for Selecting Native Grasses and Sedges according to their growing requirements and usages. Information on each plant is provided according to the following criteria:

Common Name(s) / Botanical Name
Life Cycle
Characteristics
Cultural Requirements
Time of Bloom
Suggested Uses
Georgia Hardiness Zones
Size
Habitat
Native To
Propagation
Comments

Common Name(s) / Botanical Name: Many of the plants have more than one common name. Those that are most often used are listed. For this publication, Flora of Southern and Mid-Atlantic States by Alan S. Weakley, North Carolina Herbarium, was used as the definitive source for botanical names. Plants that were re-classified into a new genus also show the previous botanical name in the form of a synonym (syn.) after the current name.

Life Cycle: Native grasses may be annuals or perennials, while sedges are perennials. Annuals flower, fruit and die in one growing season. Perennials flower and fruit each year, and they live for several years.

Characteristics: This section provides a botanical description of the plant that will assist the reader in identifying it. Noteworthy characteristics such as growth habit, leaf arrangement or shape, flower type and color, and seed structure are provided.

Cultural Requirements: A description of the type of growing environment the plant needs to thrive, such as the light level, soil type and soil conditions, is provided. Other information useful in managing the plant, such as pruning to remove old foliage prior to new growth or pruning before seed set to prevent seed dispersal, is included where appropriate.

Time of Bloom: The months of the year when the plant typically flowers in Georgia.

Suggested Uses: Some grasses are used for controlling erosion or restoring disturbed sites. Others are used in wildlife habitats. Still others may have ornamental value and are used in cultivated landscapes. The growing requirements and native habitat of the plant are considered when providing suggested uses.

Georgia Hardiness Zones: The Cold Hardiness Zones in Georgia to which the plant is adapted are shown here. These zones are based on the 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture Hardiness Zone Map for the United States. Figure 2 shows the 2012 Cold Hardiness Zones for Georgia.

Cold Hardiness Zones in Georgia (Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2012). Cold Hardiness Zones in Georgia (Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2012).

Size: The expected mature height and/or spread of the plant under ideal cultural conditions.

Habitat: The environment(s) in which the plant is found in the wild.

Native To: A general description of the region within the continental U.S. where the plant is presently found in its native habitat.

Comments: Additional information about the plant that the reader may find interesting.

Botanical Terms Used to Describe Grass and Sedge Plants

Terminology used to describe the parts of grasses and sedges differs from that of herbaceous or woody plants. The illustrations in figures 1, 2 and 3 show terms commonly used to describe the parts of grasses and sedges, followed by definitions of the terms used in the figures. A glossary at the end of this publication provides the reader with additional definitions of terms used elsewhere in this publication.

Figure 1. Parts of Grass and Sedge Plants (Credit: National Drought Mitigation Center, Lincoln, Neb.). Figure 1. Parts of Grass and Sedge Plants (Credit: National Drought Mitigation Center, Lincoln, Neb.).
Figure 2. Grass Floral Parts (Credit: Norman Melvin, USDA Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory). Figure 2. Grass Floral Parts (Credit: Norman Melvin, USDA Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory).

Figure 3. Sedge Floral Parts (Credit: Norman Melvin, USDA Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory). Figure 3. Sedge Floral Parts (Credit: Norman Melvin, USDA Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory).

Definitions of Terms Shown in the Figures

Achene: A dry single-seeded fruit.
Awn: A bristle-like appendage on a floret or seed, often the extension of veins in glumes or lemmas.
Anther: The male floral part in which pollen is produced.
Blade: The broad, flattened portion of the leaf.
Bract: A modified leaf at the base of the ovary. It is also called a scale.
Bristles: Reduced or modified leaves with numerous hairs, usually in association with the ovary.
Callus: A thickened raised area of hardened tissue.
Collar: The outside area of a grass leaf where the blade and sheath join.
Crown: The basal portion of the plant just above ground level.
Culm: A hollow or pithy stalk or stem.
Filament: The stalk of the male portion of a flower to which the anther is attached.
First glume: The lower of the two glumes and just below the first floret. It is usually the smaller of the two glumes, or it may be entirely absent.
Floret: A unit within a grass spikelet usually comprised of a lemma, palea, two to three lodicules and the grass reproductive parts.
Glumes: The lower one or two sterile bracts at the base of a spikelet.
Inflorescence: A collective term used to describe the overall floral part of the plant.
Internode: The portion of the culm between two nodes.
Lemma: The lower of the two bracts enclosing a flower (floret) above the glumes. It is the most modified of the bracts and the last to disappear.
Ligule: A membranous structure on the adaxial leaf surface adjacent to the sheath.
Lodicules: Modified (reduced) perianth parts.
Nerve: The vein of a glume.
Node: The joint of a grass stem (culm) where the leaves and branches originate.
Ovary: Part of the flower that encloses the ovules containing seeds.
Palea: The inner of the two bracts, enclosed by the edges of the lemma.
Pedicel: The stalk of a single flower.
Pistil: The female floral part.
Rachilla: The secondary axis of a compound leaf or inflorescence.
Scale: Leaflike structure found at the base or outside of the flower. It is also called a bract.
Second glume: The glume opposite to the first, usually larger glume. When the first is lacking, the second glume is on the opposite side of the first floret.
Sheath: The lower part of a grass leaf that encloses the stem.
Shoot: The above-ground portion of a plant.
Spikelet: An inflorescence with one or two glumes at the base and containing one or more florets.
Stamen: The male part of a flower.
Stigma: The distal end of the style, which is receptive to pollen.
Style: Pollen tube connecting the stigma to the ovary.
Stolon: A horizontal above-ground stem that roots along its nodes. It is also called a runner.
Rhizome: A horizontal underground stem.

Warm-season Grasses

Upland Bentgrass, Autumn Bentgrass / Agrostis perennans

Life Cycle: Perennial

Characteristics: A tufted grass having unbranched, leafy light-green culms. Leaf blades are medium green, 1/8 to 1/4 inch wide and 2 to 10 inches long. At the junction of each blade and sheath there is a white membranous liqule. The nodes along each culm are green and swollen. Each fertile culm terminates in an open branched panicle, 3 to 12 inches long and 1 1/2 to 6 inches wide, having a zigzag rachis. Each spikelet has two prominent glumes that resemble a pair of tiny claws. The green inflorescence is more open and airy in shady locations, and it turns tan in fall. The plant self-seeds and forms small colonies. The root system is fibrous.

Cultural Requirements: This grass adapts to a wide variety of cultural conditions, from moist to dry soils in full sun to light shade.

Time of Bloom: September, with spikelets persisting through October.

Suggested Uses: Use Upland Bentgrass in open areas, such as right of ways and meadows.

Georgia Hardiness Zones: All of Georgia

Size: 1 to 3 feet tall

Habitat: Dry or moist thickets, rocky open woodlands, thinly wooded bluffs, wooded openings, prairie swales. In woodlands, it is often found growing at the base of deciduous trees.

Native To: Maine, south to Florida, west to Texas and north to North Dakota.

Comments: A number of caterpillars feed on the foliage, and the seeds are eaten by a variety of birds and mammals. The foliage is grazed by livestock.

Upland Bentgrass N. L. Britton and A. Brown, NRCSUSDA Plants Database
Upland Bentgrass Dropseed Native Plant Nursery

Upland Bentgrass Gary P. Flemming, Digital Atlas of Virginia Flora

Status and Revision History
Published on Apr 16, 2013
Reviewed on Feb 1, 2016