A Patriotic Grass

One of the hottest plants to jump off our shelves this past spring and summer was a blue grama grass, Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’. The last plant I can recall that leapt off our shelves with such fervor was Hydrangea ‘Endless Summer’ a number of years ago.  The demand was high and growers simply weren’t prepared for how well this grass would be received.

A rugged, cold hardy, native grass, ‘Blonde Ambition’s’ flowers have been likened to that of eyelashes and grasshoppers. While I see and appreciate these descriptive comparisons, I prefer flag-like flowers suspended above its blue-green foliage. Stiff, weather resistant stems don’t seem to wobble or fall apart during our heavy thunderstorms here in the Northeast. Commonly called blue grama or mosquito grass, Bouteloua gracilis, is a tufted, warm season native noted for its mosquito larvae-like seed spikes which hang from only one side of its flowering stems, another descriptive. Native to prairies and plains throughout the western United States, Bouteloua has been known to be a dominant shortgrass. ‘Blonde Ambition’, a unique cultivar, only reaches 2-3 feet tall and equally as wide. Tolerant to drought, erosion and air pollution, it’s the resistance to juglone that impresses me most. Juglone is a chemical that is exuded from all parts of Black Walnut, Juglans nigra, thus making it one of the most recognized gardening nightmares to contend with. Allelopathy refers to the relationship between plants in which one plant produces a substance that inhibits the growth of sensitive plants nearby www.mortonarb.org. Bouteloua is said to have this resistance and may help explain, in part, its sudden popularity. Easily grown in most soils, other than poorly drained wet ones, blue grama grass loves full sun. This grass freely self seeds and appreciates a haircut in late winter months rather than the end of autumn.

“The genus name honors two Spanish brothers Claudius and Esteban Boutelou, professors of botany and agriculture respectively” www.missouribotanicalgarden.org. ‘Blonde Ambition’ produces chartreuse flowers, bent to one side, as if it’s a flag on a flagpole during a windy day. These flowers give way to blonde seed heads that remain well into the winter months. Interestingly, there are reports, on the Internet, that this plant can also be grown as a turf grass and regularly mowed to 2 -4 inches high. There are no serious insect or disease issues with this plant and the flowers make an excellent addition to dried flower arrangements.

We have David Salman, of High Country Gardens, to thank for this unique grass. Truly unlike any other grass in cultivation, this airy, highly adaptable, dramatic blue grama turned heads at our garden center all season long. Found in 2007 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this grass originated as a sport off Bouteloua gracilis ‘Hatchita’.

Useful in foundation landscapes as well as in pottery around a pool or by your front door, it’s dramatic in any application. Found from Manitoba Canada, south and west across the Rocky Mountains and even to Mexico, this is one tough plant! A 2011 Plant Select® winner, this grass can easily be divided, like others, in early spring. The next time you think you see a “swarm of flying insects” it may not be just that. Another accurate description of just how fun and whimsical these unusual, chartreuse flowers can be.