Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Thoughtful grass use of place, water thriftiness = strong; faddish grass use in denial of place, thirst = weak. Yet sales of mesic grasses rage on - used in sparse groups of 3, or miles on freeways and streets - yuck, slurp!

I lived in different parts of the Great Plains from the 8th grade through college; over time, grasses tightened their grip on me, as much as my accepting the wind through them across miles of varying flatness. But for 21 years, I've lived in the desert; arid lands also have appealing bunch grasses.

Here are two desert natives, in order of when they captured me.

Mid-1990's - GIANT SACATON / Sporobolus wrightii
Early fall - UTEP Chihuahuan Desert Garden, El Paso

Mature size - 6-10' tall X same spread depending on selection, seed stalks 8-12' tall
Growth rate - fast
Water use - low to moderate

Seed stalks from early fall, and "that sky"
Late winter - USDA Plant Materials Center, Los Lunas (and more of that sky!)

Nice they weren't cut down in fall, so we can see form and presence over 12" of cubed or rounded stubble for 5 months...

There are some remaining, healthy stands of giant sacatons remaining in arroyos coming out of the Manzano Mountains in the distance. They are mostly urbanized out of the valley areas, which include many upscale homes in denial of place. About the last stand I know of this species was in the southern part of Corrales, and I need to see if I took photos of those before the deed was done. (a retail center with many habitual, higher water-use and non-native plants, plus loads of gravel...)

The above forms are a USDA selection that tends to grow taller, for use as a windbreak. One is called 'Windbreaker' - here

Late summer - Borland Residence, metro Denver CO

Glad to see others succeeding with this plant, and like a number of species native to the desert valleys of New Mexico and either side of us, they seem to all look better in Denver. Probably more my occasional need of a new perspective!
Late summer - Kelaidis Residence, metro Denver CO

Fall - freeway rest area, near San Marcial NM

I liked the form of this large grass 1st, seeing it in the wild on a trip led by Mike Melendrez of Valencia County, to some of those arroyos near the Manzano Mountains; 2nd, in Judy Mielke's excellent book, "Native Plants for Southwestern Landscapes".

The above photo shows someone got it's qualities long before I did, and that's nice. Pioneering ain't what it's cracked up to be.

Late summer - architecture office, Albuquerque

Mature size - 2-3' tall X 2-3' spread, seed stalks 3' tall
Growth rate - fast
Water use - low

I designed this planting to blend in somewhat with the renovated building's stucco color (be
more monochromatic), and since it can take uber-hot exposures, some traffic, and even the
occasional car bumper. Delicate woody shrubs of mountain or humid temperate affinities
can't do that. And these get only natural precipitation most of the time, unless someone drags
out the hose - but the latter doesn't happen much; the former averages 7-9" / year.

And it was a member of the HOG who showed me a stand of Alkali Sacaton, on a winter
walk in the Rio Grande bosque of our North Valley, that turned me onto it. See, I'm not so bad!

There are 2 young Soaptree / Yucca elata hiding within them. Soft and sharp.

Early fall - Ten Eyck Residence, Austin TX

Christy noted these to some people on a garden tour. Of course - she's been an influence from her past years in Phoenix, where it's native. Here, it's influencing hordes of Austinites, where I don't believe I found out that it's also native. Should be funny to watch it gain popularity there, perhaps with some cute marketing name, before it's commonly used well here in NM!

And soft and sharp (Yucca pallida), again. Hers' are more loose, since they are in part shade.
Back to the Albuquerque office, looking into them backlit by the afternoon sun - full in almost full sun.
How about these seedheads, against a shaded gabion wall filled with some of their broken concrete driveway? Wow!


  1. I love the Sacaton. What a tough bunch grass it is. And also a beautiful addition to any landscape with the room and you'll need the room.

    The seed heads also help identification from a great distance. They are unique to themselves as I cannot compare it to any other bunch grass. If a person in the rural areas were very smart, they would plant a lot of this if they had farm animals to feed and wanted to cut feed bills. Most herbivores are grass feeding animals anyway. The introduction to a grain fed diet is only a recent product.


    1. Tough to be sure - puts habitual Cortaderia selloana / Pampas Grass to shame in an arid climate, and it's not an invasive like Saccharum ravennum / Ravenna Grass. (and thanks for your comment on room, so I added the mature height, spread, etc under both species)

      The seed head is indeed a great indicator; that's how I spotted the last stand in Corrales NM. Yet, a Native Plant Society of NM member living just a few miles away never looked closely at that, assuming it was Johnson Grass! Not at all. Great points on the potential use as farm animal feed...both are so happy in alkaline valley areas where people do that.

    2. The Arizona city or town of Sacaton along I-10 was named for this bunch grasses as it was once extremely abundant there in the days of the old west where a stage stop and livery were established and the Sacaton harvested for horses and other livestock. Of course back in those days these areas were also sort of Savanna flood plains with shallow ground water table which allowed for abundant grassland as opposed to the present moonscape it is now.

      Who knew ?


    3. I was just thinking of Sacaton AZ, which I've seen on a map. Good to know the big one was there. Moonscape - exactly.

  2. I've always wanted to see these Sporobulus in person (especially the GIANT one)! I don't think I've ever seen them out here, sadly. I think if I didn't look closely at the seed head arrangement of the Alkali Sacaton, I'd have sworn it was Deschampsia!

    1. I should send you some seed of both, in case you have room...or can find some space elsewhere around you! Either is fine with heavy to gritty soils, full sun, and takes dry summers or winters fine. Interesting on the ID that's similar to Deschampsia - since we have other Sporobulus here, they have a signature seed head to me.

  3. Those grasses are perfect for your desert climate, the light on them in your photos confirms it. Of course being native there would also be a clue.

    In Central Texas we get to mix and match from various regions, especially looking west.

    1. It was a nice surprise that Ten Eyck's place had them! The whole Edwards Plateau / Hill Country is such a bridge for plants from both the far west to the SE...too bad it's also SE humidity with SW drought!

      Update - just linked to the online database, and both are native in the SA area

  4. MUST HAVE...both! The giant one is magnificent! Thank you for featuring these - I have never heard of either. I imagine they would do well here too?

    1. Click the link above it's photos, scroll to the Texas part of the map, and click..Bexar County, yes! They both are available. (1) Giant Sacaton is probably all you need in a prominent spot with >8' of clear room. Or try -

    2. Bexar county native! How cool! Love that site too by the way, I look forward to searching around with it. Thanks so much David. :) I am on the hunt - woo-hoo!

  5. Congratulations on making a parking lot look attractive! I love the plants like these--especially the alkili sacaton--that almost seem to vaporzie into air. They look fragile even through they can be pretty tough customers.

    1. Thanks - I won't talk about their lack of tree pruning, though, from where I took the photo! The place is a work in progress...they planted their golden fig tree, but no pomegranates or vines along the chain link hell strip. "Vaporize" is a great descriptor...strong, yet subtle.

  6. Native grasses are probably the most underrated and underutilized plants around. I think both these grasses are wonderful plants. And this is just the tip of the grassberg, too. Imagine what our gardens and landscapes would be like with Sporobolus contractus, S. giganteus, Leymus cinereus, etc., with blue grama and galleta and wolftail instead of, you know, the other stuff....