FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Sporobolis heterolepis is a petite warm season perennial grass. Plants form attractive mounds of slender deep green arching leaves. In late spring one or more culms rises above the foliage bearing airy panicles of olive, silvery, golden or tan spikelets. The florets mature into small globe shaped grains that quickly fall to the earth. Foliage usually develops golden-orange fall highlights. This tough grass can survive in harsh dry prairies or can prosper in sunny gardens with dry to average soils.
HABITAT & HARDINESS: Sporobolis heterolepis occurs in 4 Canadian provinces and is scattered from Connecticut and Massachusetts west to Wyoming and Colorado and south to Texas. This grass is most common in the remnant prairies of the Heartland and is much less frequent in other parts of the U. S.
Plants are indigenous to glades, prairies, open rocky woodlands, pine savannas, barrens, rock outcrops, grassy fens, lightly grazed pastures and railroad or highway right-of-ways.
This grass is hardy from USDA Zones 3-8.
PLANT DESCRIPTION: Sporobolis heterolepis is a tufted perennial grass with narrow fine textured leaves. Plants hold soil with their vigorous fibrous roots and expand slowly from short underground rhizomes.
This grass has smooth linear leaves that are either flat or rolled. Blades are less than 1/8” wide and 20” long. The clumping foliage has an attractive shaggy mophead appearance.
By mid-summer, culms sport open airy panicles. The panicles have a pyramidal silhouette and purple to black stalks. The individual spikelets vary in color from pinkish to silvery and golden tan. They are elliptical and about 1/8”long and are said to be scented of coriander.
The florets transition into globe shaped grain-like seed that fall to the ground or are forcibly expelled when the seed husk dries.
The leaves generally turn golden orange in autumn and fade to bronze in winter.
Plants attain 1-2’ height with 2-3’ spread. Flowering culms rise above the foliage to a height of 3’.
CULTURAL & MAINTENANCE NEEDS: Sporobolis heterolepis prospers in full sun in dry rocky or average soil.
Plants do not tolerate shading by taller plants but they do tolerate controlled burns and alkaline pH.
Plants are happy in clay, loamy, rocky or gravelly soils, on slopes and in extreme drought.
This grass needs little maintenance except to be cut or burned to the ground in late winter.
LANDSCAPE USES: Useful as an Accent, Groundcover or for Erosion Control. Sporobolis heterolepis is often used as part of a Grouping or Mass Planting. It provides Fall Color and Winter Interest. Plants are appropriate for Water-wise Landscapes, Low Maintenance Plantings, Meadow or Prairie Gardens, Perennial Borders, Rock Gardens, Roadsides and Restoration Projects.
COMPANION & UNDERSTUDY PLANTS: Try pairing with Asclepias tuberosa, Echinacea purpurea, Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida, and Schizachrium scoparium.
Schizachyrium scoparium is similar in appearance and cultural needs. Carex vulpinoidea is similar in appearance and could be substituted in a wet site.
TRIVIA: Sporobolis heterolepis seed are relished by sparrows, juncos and other granivorous songbirds. Foliage is browsed by bison, deer and livestock. The tender growth is excellent forage but plants decline if heavily grazed.
This species was a 2005 Missouri Botanical Garden Plants of Merit winner.
Sporobolis is from Greek words meaning "seed", and "throw" and refers to the dispersion of seeds.
For more information on this plant, visit the USDA PLANTS Database: http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=SPHE