In addition to the ridiculous cactus that I’ve been working on removing from my front yard, I’ve also been pulling out another undesirable: Stipa tenuissima or Mexican feather grass.
You are likely familiar with this plant. If you don’t have it in your yard, your neighbor probably does, or the restaurant down the street. It’s a common ornamental grass used in both home and commercial landscapes. Also known by a newer botanical name, Nassella tenuissima, it grows in clumps 1-3 feet tall. This green grass has silky, thin foliage, and the tops gently bow over, cascading like a fountain. In the summer, it gets feathery seed heads that range from sea-foam green to blond in color. And no wonder it’s so popular; it’s low maintenance, pest free, and drought tolerant.
There is no denying that Mexican feather grass is a beautiful plant. It’s thin leaves wave and bend gracefully in the wind, bringing soft and gentle movement to your garden. When massed together, they undulate like waves, the wind visibly moving through your landcape. But as wonderful as this grass is, they have a major downside.
Mexican Feather Grass is Invasive
That wind that causes the plants to dance with such poetic movement also carries seeds. Everywhere. One Mexican feather grass plant produces tens of thousands of seeds, which stay viable for 4 years or more. The seeds are carried by the wind, by water, by footprints or animals. And because this plant is so easy to grow, it means it’s happy almost anywhere the seeds land.
In my own yard, this grass was planted in the front garden, but I’ve been finding tiny seedlings in the side yard. On my daily dog walks, I see lots of it planted in my neighborhood, and where there is one, there are always several around. It’s like a game of Eye Spy or a Where’s Waldo hunt, and I like to find where it has spread to. Sometimes it’s in neighbors yards, sometimes across the sidewalk, sometimes across the driveway, sometimes across the path. Next time you walk around, I encourage you to keep your eye out, and you’ll see how easy it spreads!
The problem with invasive plants
Mexican feather grass is so prolific it’s now listed as an invasive species in California. Many people think invasive means it’s not from here, but that’s not true. There are many introduced plants that are perfectly well behaved. The problem with invasive species is they are capable of overcoming native plants (or animal species, if you’re talking about invasive animals). They are like the mean bullies of the plant world. Mexican feather grass in particularly crowds out pasture grass species as well as native grasses and it is found in all types of landscapes: urban spaces, agricultural areas, forests, open grasslands, riparian zones, disturbed land, and shrublands.
Efforts have being made to have growers stop producing it, and for nurseries stop selling, but I still see it, particularly at the big box stores. If you are outside of California, Stipa tenuissuma might be a great plant for you, but I urge you to check with your coop extension or master gardeners to find out if it’s appropriate for your area.
5 Alternatives to Mexican Feather Grass
Despite it’s good qualities, we can not simply ignore the potential impact that Mexican feather grass has as an invasive. As good stewards of the earth, we should not be planting plants that will wreak havoc on our environment. Luckily, there are plenty of other beautiful alternatives, that will thrive in the same conditions! Click on the link to be directed to a nursery’s site for more information about the plant’s growing needs. Photos from the linked nursery, unless otherwise mentioned.
Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ (Blue grama grass)
Sporobolus airoides (Prairie Dropseed)
Muhlenbergia dubia, (Pine Muhly or Mexican Deer Grass)
Muhlenbergia capillaris (Pink Muhlygrass)
Sesleria autumnalis (Autumn Moor Grass)
What is your favorite alternative? Do you have any of these growing in your garden or have a Mexican feather grass horror story? Leave me a comment and let me know! Currently, I’m LOVING the Blue gramma grass!
If you are in California and wondering what other plants are invasive, check out http://www.plantright.org/invasive-plants-california-region.