Best Ornamental Grasses for Birds

Ornamental Grasses for Birds

The sights and sounds of ornamental grasses moving in the wind makes them a great choice for any garden. Many are native prairie plants adapted to the wide range of soils found in the Austin area. And if that’s not enough reasons, ornamental grasses attract birds and butterflies. Native sparrows, finches and other small birds forage the seed heads.  This is in addition to the more than 100 butterfly species, especially skippers, that use certain grasses as larval host plants.

Travis County Master Gardener Linda Drga suggests that you put a birdbath near your ornamental grass beds. This provides the small birds water in proximity to the protection and shelter the grasses afford them. Grasses also are a source of nesting material.

In general, ornamental grasses prefer sunny, well-drained soils. There are a variety of forms and textures, heights and spread. They are low maintenance once established and can be divided every three to four years. Plant them in fall so that the roots have time to get established before summer heat arrives.

Here is Linda’s list of the best ornamental grasses for birds that do well in the Austin area.

Growing Conditions
Mature Size
Other Notes
Switchgrass seedheads
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
Moist to dry soil and full sun, tough grass Seeds, winter shelter, butterfly host 3-7 feet tall; 2-4 feet wide Reddish-purple fades to tan Mulch heavily to prevent seeds from spreading. Native; deer resistant
Little Bluestem with it's characteristic reddish fall foliage
Little Bluestem ‘Nash’ (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Well-drained soil and full sun, moderate growth, adaptable Seeds, foliage provides cover, nesting 2-3 feet tall; 1-2 feet wide Blue-green foliage turns dark red to purple to tan Good for naturalized areas and erosion control. Tall upright foliage and seed heads used for cut flowers. Needs space as it readily reseeds. Larval host for Skipper butterfly. Native.  Bunching growth habit.
Inland Sea Oats seed head
Inland Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)
Fast growing, erosion control, medium water, adaptable to any soil, prefers shade, native Seeds, good for pots 2-4 feet tall; 2-4 feet wide Green then age to tan Attractive arching seed heads in late summer.  Readily reseeds. Cut back in late summer for seed control. Stems used for dried flower arrangements.
Blue Grama grass seed head
Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis)
Drought/heat tolerant; low-medium water, most soil types Seeds; larval plant; good for wildflower meadows 6 to 12 inches tall; 6 to 12 inches wide White seed heads that grow horizontally; green or greyish leaves Eyelash-shape, horizontal seed heads. Native, short-grass prairie plant. Bunching growth habit. Can be used as lawn replacement. Larval host for Skipper butterflies.
Prairie Dropseed grass clump with seed heads
Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
Full sun, prefers well-drained soil but will tolerate rocky or clay soils Seeds; bird nesting material; structure for native bees 2-4 feet tall; 2-4 feet wide Pink and brown tinted blooms Native. Fine-textured, bunching round clump growth habit. Use as edging plant or ground cover. Delicate seed heads. Dethatch yearly.
Indiangrass with brownish seed heads
Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Well-drained to moist soil; prefers full sun but will tolerate some shade Seeds; foliage provides cover; good for wildflower meadows 4-6 feet tall; 2-3 feet wide Dark orange or purple in fall, yellow seed heads that age to brown Lush upright growth habit. Good for screens and erosion control. Corn-like structure.
Blue Fescue foliage with characteristic blueish-green color
Blue Fescue (Festuca glauca)
Well-drained soil and full sun Seeds, nesting material, 6-18 inches tall; 12-24 inches wide, neat mounds Blue-green foliage, golden spike heads Semi-evergreen and drought tolerant.
Purple Millet seed head and foliage
Purple Millet (Pennisetum galucum)
Tolerant of heat and low moisture; full sun Seeds 4-6 feet tall with 8-12 inches flower plumes Gold to Purple foliage and seed heads Tender perennial but starts easily from seed. Corn-like foliage. Good in pots. Dense, bushy growth habit. Stems used for dried flower arrangements.
Feather Reedgrass variety Karl Foerester with it's upright white seed heads
Karl Foerester Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora)
Sun-part shade, average soil, medium moisture, tolerates wet soil Seeds 3-5 feet tall, 18-30 inch wide Blue-grey foliage; white showy seed heads Hybrid, non-native with strong, upright, narrow leaves. Use as an accent or border plant. Good for erosion control. Stems used for dried flower arrangements.
Mexican Feathergrass
Mexican Feathergrass (Nassella tenuissma)
Alkaline soils Seeds, nesting material 1-3 feet tall; 1-2 feet wide Green flowers in summer, evergreen Fine textured leaves forming dense clumps. Drought and frost tolerant. Graceful in the breeze. Reseeds readily and can be invasive.
Dwarf fountain grass with fluffy white seed heads
Dwarf Fountaingrass ‘Hameln’ or ‘Little Bunny’ (Pennisetum alopecuroides)
Full sun, well-drained; drought tolerant Seeds, nesting material 3 feet tall; 2 feet wide White plumes turn russet in fall; fall foliage is golden-russet color Uniform soft textured, compact,  clumping growth habit. Non-native.  Use as an accent or container plant. Stems used for dried flower arrangements. Susceptible to cold damage if cut back too early in fall – wait for the foliage to die.
Purple fountaingrass with mauve seed heads and burgundy foliage
Purple Fountaingrass ‘Ruburn’ (Pennisetum setaceum)
Sunny location, well- drained soil Seeds, nesting material 3-4 feet tall, 4 feet wide Purple or burgundy foliage, purplish seed heads Good for the garden or containers. Fast growing.  Propagate by division since it rarely sets seed.
Tufted Hairgrass foliage and seed heads
Tufted Hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa)
Moist, rich, organic soil and full-part shade Seeds, nesting material 2-3 feet tall; 1-2 feet wide Dark green Clumping growth habit. The  fine, hair-like grass creates a waterfall appearance.
Excellent ornamental for part-shade, petite, rock or woodland gardens. Goes well with ferns. Low-maintenance.
Bamboo muhly
Bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia Dumosa)
Fertile well-drained soil Cover, nesting material 3-6 feet tall; 3-6 feet wide Straw-colored blooms late summer Fast growing. Cut back in late winter. Graceful and wispy leaves. Can be grown in large container.
Gulf Muhly with pink seed heads
Gulf Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris)
Sun, medium moisture Cover, nesting material 1-3 feet tall; 1-3 feet wide Fluffy pink blossoms late summer Soft-looking, slender green leaves. Clumping growth habit. Native. Cut back late winter. Spectacular when backlit by the sun.
White seed heads and clumping growth habit of Lindheimer Muhly
Lindheimer’s Muhly (Muhlenbergia lindheimeri)
Medium water use but drought tolerant. Seeds, cover, nesting material 2-5 feet tall, 2-4 feet wide Silver seed heads in fall Semi-evergreen, finely textured leaves with a clumping growth habit. Moderate growth. Elegant swaying seed heads. Texas Superstar® plant. Native. Deer resistant. Popular variety is ‘Regal Mist’.
White seed heads of Miscanthus Sinensis
Japanese Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis)
Well drained soil Seeds 4-6 feet tall; 2-4 feet wide Blooms vary in varieties Slow to moderate growth. Blooms late summer. Deer and rabbit resistant. Stems used for dried flower arrangements. Good visual interest in winter.


Additional Resources

Earth-Kind® Landscaping Plant Database

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – recommended grasses for Central Texas

Cheryl Hazeltine’s Central Texas Gardner. (2010)

Gardening with Prairie Plants: How to Create Beautiful Native Landscape, Sally Wasowski (2002)

Gardening with Grasses, Michael King and Piet Oudolf (1998)

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