Underrated Native Plants – Poverty Oats

In the world of ornamental native grasses, Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) by far enjoys the most widespread use. It is highly adaptable, fills in quickly and readily propagates itself. However, it is a big grass. In larger properties with ample space it can be left to do it’s thing, but in smaller spaces, it can crowd out other plants, appear out of scale and quickly outgrow the space that it is allocated. I rarely use it, and if I do, I select one of the lower growing cultivars to try and reduce its mass. I have used other smaller native grasses to various degrees of success. Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a favorite of mine and while I don’t mind it, similar to some of the other popular warm season native grasses, it does lend to a fallow field appearance of the plantings that incorporate it.

Poverty Oats planted with Cheyenne Spirit Coneflower

So I knew when developing the plant palette for the Sands House in historic Annapolis that I would need to adjust my approach. The yard is urban and tiny. The planting spaces were dry and temperatures were exacerbated by the heat that reflected off adjacent buildings. With little room for trees and the only shade being provided by buildings, the planting spaces quickly changed from full shade to full sun throughout the day as the sun moved across the site. 

Poverty Oats provides a native alternative to the long popular exotic Fountain Grass

Everything that was planted there needed to be an appropriate scale and remain tidy throughout most of the growing season. When referencing plant community analogues to develop the heavily native palette, Poverty Oats (Danthonia spicata) popped up in the list. Danthonia spicata prospers in full sun or part sun and infertile dry sandy or rocky soil and tolerates drought. Given the urban soil that we had to work with, which was dusty in texture and had already yielded a truck load of broken red brick, glass, oyster shells and animal bones, it seemed to fit the bill, so I included it in the palette.

Two growing seasons later and the Poverty Oats has filled in remarkably well and looks surprisingly tidy and ornamental. It has the same scale and effect as the exotic Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) and seems just as durable. For a small grass that is barely noticeable in its native habitat it can hold it’s own in a small garden.