Altitude Native Grasses
Irene Shonle, Gilpin County Cooperative Extension
Even with normal
precipitation, trying to establish new grass under dryland conditions
is tricky. Generally, the best time to seed is in the late fall, just
before the first significant snowfall. The seeds will then germinate
in the spring. The other time in Colorado for seeding is in late June
or early July, just before the monsoonal moisture flow that is typical
for that time of year. This can be very successful or can be a total
bust, depending on whether the rains come in the right amount and over
a long enough period of time. Seeding with a grass drill is the most
successful practice, but most small acreage landowners do not have access
to a drill. Broadcast seeding can work but is not as successful as drill
seeding. For broadcasting, the seeding rate needs to be doubled and
the seed needs to be incorporated by harrowing as best as possible.
Indian Rice Grass. This beautiful grass was a prime
food source of Native Americans who would grind the grain into flour
to make bread. Both the leaves and grain have a high nutritional value.
“Indian Rice Grass” has been steadily destroyed in its native
habitat since the 1800’s; it is a grass worthy of restoration
and preservation. The 1’-2’ flowering stems are beautifully
airy & a graceful accent in rock garden, or flower beds and a great
sandy soil/meadow reclamation grass. Often found in flower markets,
many people grow it specifically for cutting. Birds love the seeds!
Look for a variety called “Nezpar” or “Paloma”
Mountain brome is a bunchgrass native to the Rocky
Mountain and Pacific Coast regions. Plants grow to 4 feet, with leaves
up to 12 inches long and about 0.25 inch wide. Leaf blades are flat
and hairy underneath. Growth starts early in the spring, producing much
leafy forage relished by livestock. Because of rapid seedling growth
and a well-branched, deep root system, mountain brome is excellent where
a rapid cover development is needed.
Blue Grama Grass is a warm season grass, native to
the High Plains. It is a low-growing bunch grass, (1-1 1/2 ft. with
the seed heads) that is part sod-forming & can be grown as a tight
turf. The blades are thin, so the texture of this grass is very fine.
Easy to establish, cold hardy, pest and disease free, tolerant of poor
soil. The seed is borne in flags that curl back gracefully when dry.
Up here, plant only in open, south or west facing areas. Tufted hairgrass
is a circumpolar native grass. It is a medium to tall growing, densely
tufted bunchgrass. It has a fibrous root system and stands between 20–80
cm in height. It grows in soils varying from sand to clay; but does
perform best on finer textured soils. It has low to moderate drought
Blue wild rye is a perennial bunchgrass native throughout
the Western States. It grows in small tufts, reaching up to 5 feet.
Leaves are broad and flat, up to 12 inches long. It is abundant on moist
soils but will tolerate drought. It is shade tolerant. Slender wheatgrass
grows to 3 feet, in dense leafy clumps or bunches, a foot or more in
diameter. The flowering stems are erect and rather coarse. Most of the
leaves are basal. They are up to a foot long and 0.5 inch wide. Propagation
is by seeds. The seed has a high germination rate and excellent emergence
characteristics. It can provide a good grass cover on areas that have
been disturbed and may be used for seeding low areas that tend to be
Wheatgrass is a slender, relatively short-lived grass.
It is not as competitive with weeds as other wheatgrasses, but it is
Arizona Fescue. Dense, thin stems 2-4 ft. tall form
this high elevation bunchgrass that grows in evergreen forests &
Junegrass flowers early and produces lustrous silvery-green
seedheads in early summer. Grows on dry sandy and rocky soils, seldom
exceeding two feet in height.
Mountain muhly is a dense-growing, moderately large
bunchgrass that flowers after the soil has been moistened by summer
rains. The plants are usually about 1 to 2 feet tall.
Western wheatgrass is easy to establish on dryland
sites. It is a cool-season, perennial, sod-forming grass. It reaches
a height of 1 to 3 feet, and because of its bluish-colored stems and
leaves, it is often called Bluestem Wheatgrass. Western Wheatgrass will
tolerate short periods of flooding and also endure long periods of drought.
Little bluestem is more typically thought of as a plains
grass, however, it is worth trying up here on south or west facing areas.
A small, non-spreading, clump-forming grass with blue-green leaves that
turn bronze-red in the fall. Fluffy silver seed heads are ornamental
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