GGW Plant Pick of The Month: Sporobolus heterolepis

– Posted in: Garden Plants

Europe 253

Oudolf Garden- Hummelo, Netherlands (09/06/2009).

I just returned home from my first trip to Europe. I was drawn to Grass Days at Kwekerij Oudolf, the home and nursery of influential Dutch garden designer and plantsman, Piet Oudolf and his wife Anja. I won’t elaborate on the Oudolf’s SPECTACULAR private garden in this post. I’ll save that for a later date. Oudolf’s work inspired September’s GGW Plant Pick of The Month, Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis).

Image courtesy Northcreek Nurseries.

Image courtesy Northcreek Nurseries.

Prairie dropseed is undoubtedly one of my favorite grasses. It is a fine-textured bunchgrass, almost hair-like in appearance. Deep green leaves arch outward forming large round tufts (18″H x 24″ W). In fall, the foliage turns gold with orange tints and ultimately fades to bronze in winter.

Image courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden.

Image courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden.

In August, open, branching flower panicles rise above the basal foliage on slender stems (reaching 36″ H). The pink and brown tinted flowers have a unique fragrance (said to be similar to coriander).

According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, where Sporobolus heterolepis has been named a Plant of Merit, dropseed may be started from seed but does not freely self seed in the garden. It is a slow growing and slow to establish grass. Therefore, I typically start with larger transplants.

This North American native has a widespread range. It is hardy in USDA zones 3-9. Dropseed is easily grown in average, well drained soils in full sun. The grass is tolerant of a wide range of soil types, including heavy clays and displays good drought tolerance once established.


Lurie Garden- Chicago, IL (07/29/2008).

In my opinion, dropseed looks best in a mass planting either as a monoculture or as the dominant plant in a matrix through which other plants emerge. Companions in a matrix planting include: early summer bulbs like Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ and plants with persistent seed heads such as Echinacea pallida, Liatris spicata, Sedum ‘Matrona’. Still other plants work well adjacent to large clumps of dropseed, including: Aster, Echinacea purpurea (cultivars), Perovskia atriplicifolia, Achillea, Echinops ritro, Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’, Salvia, Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ to name just a few. Have you had success with other combinations? We’d love to hear about them.

If the species is too tall for your garden you’ll be happy to know plantsman, Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennial Farms introduced a dwarf cultivar, Sporobolus heterolepis ‘Tara’ to the trade. Diblik found the selection in 1994 in the Kettle Moraine in Wisconsin.

I saw a lovely combination planting at Midwest Groundcovers in Saint Charles, Illinois back in August including: Sporobolus heterolepis ‘Tara’, Amsonia hubrechtii, Allium ‘Summer Beauty’ (another Diblik introduction), Calamintha nepeta ssp. nepeta, Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo’ and Limonium latifolium.

If this is your first time visiting GGW Plant Pick of The Month and you’d like to participate, simply post your comments below and a link to your own site where you’ve posted photos of Prairie dropseed and comments about your experience working with the grass, successful planting combinations, etc.

Adam Woodruff

Adam Woodruff

Adam Woodruff has practiced garden design since 1995. He trained as a Botanist at Eastern Illinois University. Woodruff attributes his unique design aesthetic, naturalism with a twist, to early college exposures to a diverse range of plants and environments (collecting trips in local prairies, field excursions to bogs in Canada and treks through forests of the Northeast). He also maintained the campus greenhouse, where he fell in love with tropicals. In recent years, influences on his designs include travels abroad to Europe, Asia and the Yucatan peninsula as well as observation of the work of great plantsmen such as Piet Oudolf and Roy Diblik. Woodruff’s designs often combine grasses, prairie natives and perennials with lush tropical foliage and seasonal blooms. This harmonious blending of plant material that is not conventionally grouped together is the ‘twist’ that makes his style unique.
Adam Woodruff

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Pam Kersting September 23, 2009, 8:07 am

Ooooooooo! This looks great! Haven’t seen it here on the coast of NC, but it’s form and habit remind me of Stipa tenuissima (Mexican Feather Grass). I think this grass is an outstanding choice for en masse plantings and looks stunning with the Black-eyed susans and Russian sage! I will have to try this! Thanks so much for sharing a few photos of the Oudolf garden! I absolutely love the clipped evergreens thrown in the mix and look forward to the day when you feature this garden on your blog!

Hi Pam. Thanks for your comments. Stipa tenuissima is my FAVORITE grass! Unfortunately it is an annual in zone 5. I agree, dropseed has a similar feel and is reliably hardy. Good luck!


Chookie September 23, 2009, 8:47 am

Sporobolus heterolepis, eh? And I thought that our native plants had awkward names. Prairie dropseed is much prettier!

But could you explain ‘dominant plant in a matrix’, please? I get the gist but feel there is more to learn here.

Hi Chookie. To clarify “dominant plant in a matrix”, I am suggesting establishing a field, meadow or large mass of Prairie dropseed. Then insert other plants that have the same cultural requirements as Sporobolus (early summer bulbs, plants with persistent seedheads, etc). The resulting display is very natural. I am including a link to a Wikipedia article on Matrix Planting.


Mr. McGregor's Daughter September 23, 2009, 5:17 pm

I love Prairie Dropseed. I also admired that plant combo at Midwest Groundcovers. Dropseed is tough as nails at the end of my blacktopped driveway, where I grow it with Phlox pilosa, New England & Smooth Blue Asters, Ruellia humilis and Sweet Alyssum. I’ll have to come back with a link to posts after I’ve written a post with photos of mass plantings of Sporabolus (not in my garden).

Thanks for your comments and planting combos. We’ll look forward to your upcoming post!


Yvonne Cunnington September 23, 2009, 9:55 pm

I adore this grass. We have some in our meadow, but it’s overshadowed there by the other plants. It was hard to find so we grew it from seed. I find that works nicely as an edging plant too. Looking forward to your post on the Oudolf garden, which is on my list to visit one day.

Thanks for your comments Yvonne. The Oudolf garden is a must see!


Jennifer AKA Keewee September 23, 2009, 11:16 pm

I have just taken an interest in grasses for my landscape and thank you for your information on Prairie Dropseed. I have added this grass to my list of plants to purchase for next year.

Thanks for your comments Jennifer. Good luck to you!


Barbara E September 26, 2009, 10:47 pm

I have alkali dropseed, or alkali sacaton (Sporobolus airoides) in my garden in So. Cal. It occupies a wide range in CA, enjoying seasonally moist and alkaline soils. It requires little water in my garden, gets to be about 2.5 ft. tall and wide, and flowers in the summer. You can see pictures of it on my website ( under presentations – grasses.

Hi Barbara. Thank you for sharing your photos and experience working with Sporobolus (airoides)!


Barbara Gyarmathy March 24, 2018, 5:05 pm

I would like to consider this wonderful grass for a spot in a small public garden but it would not receive FULL sun. It would get intermittent morning sun ( shade from a tree interferes, but as of noon it would get full sun the rest of the day. Will that be enough?

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