Three More Drought Tolerant Bunch Grasses

I love bunch grasses. They are easy to care for, natural looking and come in a huge variety of colors and sizes. One of the best things about bunch grasses is their resistance to deer. If deer browse your garden on a regular basis consider bunch grasses. Not all bunch grasses are drought tolerant though. Some prefer moist soil. Be careful when you make your choice at the nursery.

I think that most bunch grasses look best when they are clustered together in a mass planting but there are exceptions. A large bunch grass with dramatic plumes can stand alone as a focal point. Diminutive grasses look sweet scattered throughout a rock garden if they are placed in a repeating pattern.

A couple of months ago I wrote about three California native bunch grasses. These are deer grass (Mulhenbergia rigens), Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis) and leafy reed grass (Calamagrostis foliosa). All are water-wise and deer resistant. I encourage you to incorporate these native gems into your landscape. Today I introduce you to three more garden-worthy specimens.

Festuca californica 'River House Blues' - Ron's California Fescue Photo by Carol Bornstein

Festuca californica ‘River House Blues’ – Ron’s California Fescue
Photo by Carol Bornstein

California fescue (Festuca californica) is native to California and Oregon. In the wild it is typically found in large swaths under native oaks. It is accustomed to partly shady conditions but can take full sun along the coast. This attractive grass grows about 2’ tall and wide. It is known for its blue-green to grey-green firm leaves that arch up and outwards. The flowering stalks emerge blue-green as they rise above the foliage. As they age they turn golden beige. California fescue is a cool season plant. New growth appears in early spring. It will fade to tan over the dry season if not irrigated. In the garden this plant looks best with some irrigation. A number of cultivars such as “River House Blues” or “Horse Mountain Green” have been developed for specific shades of blue, green or gray foliage. Consider this plant for a woodland garden.


 Chondropetalum elephantinum - Large Cape Rush Photo by San Marcos Growers.

Chondropetalum elephantinum – Large Cape Rush
Photo by San Marcos Growers.

Cape rush (Chondropetalum elephantinum) isn’t a bunch grass. In fact, it doesn’t even belong to the grass family. But it looks like a grass. It has tough, wiry, medium green, upright stems that form dense clumps. It is a large specimen growing approximately 5’ tall and wide. Cape rush creates little brown flower clusters at the tips of its branches that cause the plant to arch elegantly outward. Cape rush is versatile. It thrives in full sun or part shade. It performs well in both wet and dry soils. It is known to be a well behaved plant. Maintenance requirements include removal of the older brown stems if that look bothers you. The book Plants and Landscapes For Summer Dry Climates by East Bay MUD warns us not to cut it back as the stems will not regrow.


 Bouteloua gracilis - Blue Grama Grass Photo by San Marcos Growers.

Bouteloua gracilis – Blue Grama Grass
Photo by San Marcos Growers.

Blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) is a small, fine-textured, medium green bunch grass with multiple landscape applications. It grows 8-14“ tall. Because it spreads (slowly) it that can be grown as a natural looking turf substitute or used as the featured grass in a dryland meadow. It prefers full sun and can take most soil types. It is known for its unusual flowers that appear in spring and summer. California Native Plants for the Garden by Bornstein, Fross and O’Brian describes blue grama grass flowers as charming and shiny. They report that the “straight toothbrush-like spikes are held perpendicular to the stalk and curl gracefully as the fade to a straw color.” Yes, this is a unique plant. It is also a tough grass that takes heat, foot traffic and stands up to deer. Blue gamma grass stays green all year on the coast. It turns beige when during the dry season when planted inland.

Bouteloua grass. Photo credit:

Bouteloua grass. Photo credit:

Once again I wish you well incorporating bunch grasses into your water-wise garden.

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