“Where have you been all my life?!!”
Every once and a while, I come across a plant and simply fall in love.
I am not alone on this particular species, and the bandwagon is getting mighty crowded. Sporobolus heterolepis is the object of my affections…it even has an intriguing common name – Prairie Dropseed. It’s native to much of North America, short of the West Coast. Though most widespread in the Midwest, there are isolated populations in Virginia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. It’s even hardy up in the Arctic North (where Jeff and Linda live).
Sporobolus shows off some fluffitude while Echinacea tennesseensis look on in amazement. Author’s garden.
Now on to the juicy description: fine, green foliage forms fluffy mounds or tussocks up to one and a half feet tall and up to two feet wide. I describe it to my students as “pet-able” – one just wants to run their fingers through the flowing locks… The tiny, fragrant flowers appear in late summer form a fluffy cloud above the foliage and wave about on slender stems, even with the slightest breeze. I think the flowers have a coriander scent, have also heard buttered popcorn and vanilla. Seeds form and then drop to the ground around the plant (hence the common name), at which point the birds scarf them up. There is very little actual germination; the species is in fact endangered or threatened in several states (USDA Plants Database). As the weather cools, the fall color can range from bronze to orange to apricot – just gorgeous – and then turns to a tawny buff for the remainder of the winter.
Newly-planted in the Hahn Horticulture Garden at Viginia Tech – check out that fabulous fall color!
As with many prairie natives, this a very tough character once established – puts up with lousy soil, little rainfall, and is definitely drought-tolerant. We’ve added more than 100 of them to our campus meadow garden. At my favorite public garden, Chanticleer (Wayne, PA), they’re planted in huge drifts and are managed in the “natural” way, with controlled burns in the early spring.
Doubt you’d find it at a big box store, but it should be available at an independent garden center near you! Please note this one of those species that does NOT look very exciting in the pot, especially in the spring (green, grassy, that’s it). But give it a season or two in your garden and…[cue romantic violins…].