DryStoneGarden

Plants, Stone, California Landscapes

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Needlegrass versus Feather Grass

Mexican Feather Grass

I often pass by a spot in Lafayette where two neighboring buildings have ornamental grass plantings that almost feel like they are in dialogue with each other. One features the beautiful-but-frowned-upon Mexican Feather Grass, Nasella tenuissima, while the other sports the beloved-by-the-native-plant-community Purple Needlegrass, Nasella pulchra. It’s a distinctive side by side comparison. The plants are related but their overall effect is different and their usage shows different priorities. The Feathergrass is prettier, but the Needlegrass has deeper connections with the natural environment.

Purple Needlegrass

Feather Grass

Mexican Feather Grass is beautiful but it’s a nuisance plant, reseeding all over people’s gardens and spreading into wild areas where it supplants native species. Environmental groups and plant societies promote alternatives for it, and at one point there was an effort to raise money to buy out and destroy all of the nursery stock in the state so that it wouldn’t be planted any more. I’m not sure how successful that effort was. It hasn’t disappeared from nurseries and I still see it in landscapes fairly often, but its heyday seems to have passed. Clients sometimes request it but less often than in the past and only if they have never grown it; if they have grown it they usually want to get rid of it.

African Daisy and Feather Grass

California Poppies and Needlegrass

Needlegrass often features on lists of substitute plants to use. Objectively, it is not as pretty and refined, but it has advantages that go beyond the merely visual. Famously, its roots can extend as deep as twenty feet underground, and that fact also reflects its deeper connections with the larger California landscape. It’s the official state grass, it evolved here in this place, it’s one of the key plants of our native grasslands and it’s a good habitat plant, attracting small birds and butterflies to the garden. This might be slightly early for it to look its most ornamental — the plants are only just starting to send up their golden flower stalks — but the California Poppies are blooming, and one of the best reasons to grow Needlegrass is as a companion for native wildflowers. This planting doesn’t look dramatically different from the mix of Lupine and weed grasses that naturally happen around my house, and for me that’s the point. The Needlegrass makes me feel like the planting is a part of the wider landscape around it; it suggests that the building was inserted into the existing natural landscape and, rather than everything getting redone with a bulldozer, that there is a connection between what is here now and what was here in the past.

Needlegrass

The biggest difference is how Needlegrass fits into the landscape. For some people that’s a disadvantage; they want everyone to recognize that their landscape is cultivated and maintained. Mexican Feather Grass and this nice patch of Osteospermum look like plants purchased from a nursery, while the Needlegrass could have easily spread by seed from the surrounding hills. But for me t

One Response to “Needlegrass versus Feather Grass”

  1. June 23rd, 2018 at 9:06 am

    Jan O'Hare says:

    Thanks for the post! I passed the info on to my son, who plans to use native plants in his semi-wild California yard.