Side Oats Grama is a short perennial deep-rooted prairie grass that grows to about 2′ tall, give or take. This grass is native to most of the United States and can often be found in dry slopes, prairies, even along railroad tracks. It is often used in prairie restoration and erosion control as its deep fibrous roots system help with stabilizing the soil while being drought-tolerant at the same time. What makes Sideoats Grama so interesting is that it grows flowers along one side of its stems! In early to mid-Summer you will get orange/red flowers that hang down and dangle in the wind. I have multiple specimens in our backyard micro prairie, and will likely add more since it blends well and doesn’t overcrowd any of the flowers.
Sideoats Grama Facts
- Roots typically extend 2-4′ (0.6-1.3 m) deep
- Is Native to most of North America, only absent in the Pacific Northwest and VT/NH
- Sideoats Grama has huge wildlife value as it is fed on by many native insects as well as herbivores, making it a very important native plant
- Makes a row of flowers along the stalks, that will eventually form into seed
- Can be used as turf grass in lawn
- The Scientific Name of Sideoats Grama is Bouteloua curtipendula
Sideoats Grama Physical Description
This is a clump-forming grass that will have its stems branch out at angles, making almost an upside-down cone shape. But it is not densely formed, allowing it to mingle with other nearby species. It does slowly spread via rhizomes, but I have never seen it get out of control.
Stalk / Stem
Stems will grow about 2′-2 1/2′ tall spherically from the central clump. They are thin, have a round cross-section, and grass like (obviously!).
Leaves (blades) start at the base of the stems and grow to about 8-10″ long by 1/4″-1/2″ wide. They are alternate along the stalk, and are somewhat rough to the touch. The color is a lush blue-green in Spring, transitioning to a more pale green in late summer. Eventually turning brown once dormancy sets in.
Along the upper portion of the stem will be a large number of oat-like growths that produce tiny flowers. These flowers are generally orange in color, and dangle like bells in the wind. They are quite interesting to look at while jiggling the stem. This is the only ‘grass’ that I know of that produces a flower.
The ‘oats’ will change colors, going from green to red and finally brown towards the end of the season. These oats can be resown nearby or saved as seed.
The roots of Side-oats Grama are fibrous, and generally grow 2-4′ deep. Roots will also extend 12-18″ wide in the top few inches of soil . These fibrous roots are excellent for holding soil, and preventing erosion. The root depth make this plant very drought tolerant.
Sideoats Grama Growing Conditions
This prairie grass likes full sun but can tolerate partial shade. It can grow in sandy to clay soil as long as it drains well. Since this grass is susceptible to root rot, you should not grow this grass in a ‘rain’ garden or anything that is overly moist.
How to care for
There isn’t much you need to do to keep this plant happy and growing strong. Just don’t plant it in a wet meadow or bog, and you should be fine. Since it is native, it doesn’t really get bothered by many diseases – just some fungus which generally only happens in wet, shady areas.
You can cut the plant back in the Spring.
How to Establish Sideoats Grama from Seed
My process for starting Sideoats Grama in pots is to press 3-5 seeds into potting soil, then lightly cover with a handful of soil. Then I just keep the soil moist until germination. I then thin the seedlings until there are just 2-3 per 4″ pot.
To just start this in a bare patch of soil you have cleared for garden, lightly rake soil (1/4″) and spread seed. Then, walk on the seed to ensure good contact with the soil. After that, mulch with grass clippings or straw or lightly rake again so that the seed is partially covered. This can be done in the Spring, summer, or Fall. Keep area moist until germination.
You can save seed from Sideoats Grama by just ranking your hand along the stems in Autumn. Let the seed dry out, then store in a sealed container until the following Spring.
If you want to attract a variety of small skipper-butterflies, this grass is the plant to do it. It is host to over 6 different species of skipper. It also is eaten by about a dozen grasshoppers. So, in short – this grass is excellent for bringing in beneficial insects to your garden.
Also, I know that I have said it several times throughout this article, but Sideoats Grama is excellent for micro-prairies, meadows, wildflower gardens, and backyard prairies. Click on the image below to learn how to grow your own micro-prairie.
But in general, this grass blends well with flowers. It isn’t overly attractive on its own, but when you closely look at the tiny flowers it is just cool. I mean, they really dangle on the stem. Saving seed is so easy for this plant too.
At least 12 different species of grasshopper feed on Sideoats Grama. Additionally, there are a number of skipper butterflies that use this grass as a larval host.
List of Butterfly Skippers that feed on Sideoats Grama
Pests and diseases
Leaf-spot and leaf rust fungus can harm this grass. If you have an unusually wet season, you may see these diseases. But in general, as with all native plants, if you plant them in the habitat they like then they will be healthy and grow well.
|Sideoats Grama Reference Table|
|Common Name||Sideoats Grama, Side-oats Grama, Side-oats grass|
|Scientific name||Bouteloua curtipendula|
|Bloom Duration||2-3 weeks|
|Characteristics||Small individual flowers dangle along the side of the stems. And only on one side.|
|Height||2’ (60 cm)|
|Spacing/Spread||‘1-2’ (30-60 cm)|
|Light Requirements||Full sun, Partial Sun|
|Soil Types||Anything well drained|
|Maintenance||Not necessary. But can be cut back in Spring.|
|Typical Use||Wildflower Garden, Prairie, Erosion Control|
|Fauna Associations||Bees, seeds eaten by certain birds|
|Larval Host||Multiple Skipper Butterflies – Fauna section|
|Sowing Depth||Surface to 1/4”|
|Native Range||USDA Zones 3-9|
|Notes||Excellent grass for micro-prairies, wildflower gardens|
 – Weaver, J. E.; Albertson, F. W. 1956. Grasslands of the Great Plains. Lincoln, NE
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