FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Bouteloua gracilis is a petite clump forming perennial grass. In summer upright culms rise above the wiry bluish-green foliage bearing horizontal green and purple tinged spikes. The unique spikes and seedheads are reminiscent of hovering insects. This drought tolerant native grass can survive in harsh dry prairies or in sunny gardens with dry to average soils.
HABITAT & HARDINESS: Bouteloua gracilis occurs in the lower Canadian provinces, in the central and western United States south into Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert and sporadically in a few of the eastern states.
Plants are indigenous to dry shortgrass prairies, pine forests, thickets and roadsides.
This grass is hardy from USDA Zones 3-10.
PLANT DESCRIPTION: Bouteloua gracilis is a short tufted warm season grass. Plants hold soil with their vigorous fibrous roots and expand slowly from scaly underground rhizomes.
Plants tend to grow in bunches in the moister southern regions and are sod forming in colder dryer northern areas or in higher elevations.
Leaves are light blue-green and linear with average 4” length and 1/8” width. The erect foliage forms a dense clump. Blades turn golden in autumn sometimes with earthy orange or red highlights.
By mid-summer, upright culms sport 1-3 unique straight or slightly curved greenish or purple tinged flower spikes. The spikes are horizontal in relationship to the ground.
Each spike is about 2” long and is densely packed with 40-130 spikelets arranged in two rows in a comb-like configuration. This unusual form reminds some of eyelashes or a fine toothed comb.
After flowering tan seed spikes appear and persist into the winter.
Blooming or seeding plants attain 1-2’ height with 1-2’ spread.
CULTURAL & MAINTENANCE NEEDS: Bouteloua gracilis prospers in full sun and dry or average soil.
After establishment this grass tolerates prescribed burns, extreme cold and thrives even when exposed to grazing.
Plants also tolerate clay loams, sandy loams, shallow rocky or poor gravelly soils, salinity, alkaline pH and high elevations. This trooper can be used like a turfgrass and regularly mowed to a 2” height.
Plants are extremely drought tolerant but long term drought may cause browning and temporary dormancy until moisture becomes available.
LANDSCAPE USES: Bouteloua gracilis is a useful Accent, Groundcover or Mass. Plants provide Showy Flowers and Fruit, Fall Color, Winter Interest and Erosion Control. This species is appropriate for Water-wise Landscapes, Low Maintenance Plantings, Dry Meadows or Prairie Gardens, Cut Flower Gardens, Perennial Borders, Roadsides, Rock Gardens, Wildlife Gardens and Restoration Projects. Bouteloua gracilis is sometimes planted alone or in conjunction with Buchloe dactyloides (Buffalo Grass) as a Lawn Substitute.
COMPANION & UNDERSTUDY PLANTS: Bouteloua gracilis pairs well with Asclepias verticillata, Eryngium yuccifolium, Monarda punctata, Solidago rigida or Schizachrium scoparium.
Bouteloua curtipendula is similar in appearance and cultural needs and can be substituted in some situations.
TRIVIA: Bouteloua gracilis is larval host to several species of skippers. Plants provide cover for ground nesting birds and seed for various birds and mammals. This nutritious forage grass is readily grazed by livestock and mammalian herbivores.
This species owes much of its drought tolerance to the deep vigorous roots that can extend 12-18” out from the crown and penetrate the soil to a depth of 3-6’.
Bouteloua gracilis is commonly called mosquito grass because the spikelets look like hovering insects.