Plant of the Week: Sideoats Grama

Sideoats grama in midsummer. Photo by Friends of the High LineBouteloua curtipendula, or sideoats grama, is distinguished by tall stems lined with drooping awns that arch gracefully over the rest of its foliage. Photo by Friends of the High Line

The High Line’s planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 300 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line’s rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today.

This week we share one of our gardeners’ current favorites with you.

The grasses that make up the meadow-like landscapes of the High Line tend to blend together in the spring and early summer when all the slender green foliage looks so similar. In midsummer, though, they begin to distinguish themselves with the great variety of their flowers. And by the end of August the seed heads and stalks give each a very apparent individuality. For instance, autumn moor grass has rather short, slender golden spikes of densely packed seeds. Shenandoah red switch grass has airy, narrow panicles of tawny seeds that float among its strappy, burgundy-streaked foliage. Little bluestem is recognizable by the fuzzy awns surrounding seeds that seem to peel out of its stems. Our Plant of the Week, Bouteloua curtipendula, or sideoats grama, is distinguished by tall stems lined with drooping awns that arch gracefully over the rest of its foliage. These stems and seed heads grow through and over the surrounding grasses and wildflowers in the High Line’s gardens. The effect is both wild and elegant.

"Sideoats" is a bit of a misnomer, as plants in the genus Bouteloua are only distantly related to plants in the genus Avena, better known as oats. This plant has also been known by the vernacular names mesquite grass, tall grama, prairie grama, and slender grama. The botanical world agrees on a more precise scientific name: Bouteloua for the 18th-century botanist brothers Claudio and Esteban Boutelou, and curtipendula, meaning short-pendulant. Even scientific names can be messy, though. According to the July 1975 issue of the Journal of Range Management, the species went through no fewer than 18 different iterations of scientific names until 1848, when botanist John Torrey finally published the now accepted name Bouteloua curtipendula.

Like so many High Line plants, this one is useful outside of its reputation as an easily cultivated and well-behaved native ornamental grass. When mown to between two and four inches, Bouteloua curtipendula can be used as a turf grass because of its clump-forming habit and tolerance for drought. Sideoats grama is good cattle forage in the western United States and is also a host to the larvae of many species of skipper moths. Birds have their own use for the plant. On the High Line, wherever Bouteloua curtipendula grows, sparrows can be found balancing and bouncing on the arching stems, cracking open and devouring the seeds. It’s a hilarious spectacle that makes this grass good for a laugh as well.

WHERE TO SEE THIS PLANT
Sideoats grama can be found between Gansevoort and West 16th Streets, West 18th and West 20th Streets, and West 27th and West 30th Streets.

Our horticultural team counts on members and friends like you to help keep the High Line beautiful and thriving. Join our community of supporters who play an essential role in the High Line’s most important gardening projects – become a member of Friends of the High Line today!

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