How to Grow Prairie Dropseed

A Drought-Tolerant and Attractive Native Grass With Fragrant Flowers

Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)

Joshua Mayer / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) is an attractive yet tough and long-lived ornamental grass. By growing it you will also be doing a good deed to increase biodiversity. This grass is an endangered species in seven states (Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, North Carolina, and Kentucky) and it attracts birds such as sparrows and juncos that feed on the seeds.

With its low-growing habit, prairie dropseed is a good fit for many different locations. It will work in a perennial bed, in a wildlife garden mixed in with other native plants, in meadow-style garden, or in mass plantings as a sustainable lawn alternative. The grass will also do well at the edge of a rain garden as long as there is good drainage.

Prairie dropseed is a perennial bunchgrass. It grows in dense tufts that arch towards the ground. The foliage is glossy green in the summer and turns into a deep orange in the fall. During the winter, the leaves fade to a light bronze color. This grass remains upright in snow, adding winter interest to your yard.

What also makes prairie dropseed stand out is the fragrance of its flowers, which is very unusual for a grass. While they might look rather inconspicuous, their smell is similar to that of coriander, licorice, popcorn, roasted nuts, or sunflower seeds.

Botanical Name Sporobolus heterolepis
Common Name Prairie dropseed
Plant Type Perennial ornamental grass
Mature Size Two to three feet height, two to three feet spread
Sun Exposure Full sun to part shade
Soil Type Sandy, silt, clay, loamy
Soil pH 6.0 to 7.2
Bloom Time Late summer to early fall
Flower Color Pink brown or copper tinted flowers
Hardiness Zones 3-9
Native Area Great Plains from Texas to southern Saskatchewan, and from the eastern Midwest and northeastern US to Quebec

Prairie Dropseed Care

Prairie dropseed grows slowly and it can take a couple of years to get fully established. However, when it’s in a location it likes, it is a long-lived perennial—15 to 20 years is not unusual.

The grass does not require much maintenance other than removing the old foliage in the spring before the new growth starts.

Prairie dropseed can be planted near a black walnut tree, as the grass is not affected by juglone, the chemical that black walnut trees release to the soil and that prevents most other plants from growing.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) JPLDesigns / Getty Images

Light

The grass does best in full sun. Locations with six or more hours of direct sunlight are ideal, but it can also grow in partial shade.

Soil

As long as it is well-drained, prairie dropseed tolerates a wide range of soils, even clay soil. What it prefers however, are dry, rocky soils that resemble its native habitat. 

Prairie dropseed is a good choice for erosion control.

Water

Prairie dropseed has good drought-tolerance. In areas with regular rainfall during the growing season, watering is usually not necessary. In areas with extended drought periods during the summer, water it weekly, or more often in intense heat. However, avoid overwatering, which will actually harm it.

Temperature and Humidity

The grass is well adapted to a wide range of temperatures, both hot summers and subzero winters. Humidity does not affect prairie dropseed. 

Fertilizer

The grass thrives in poor soils and fertilizer is usually not required. 

Propagating Prairie Dropseed

While the name suggests that prairie dropseed scatters its seeds around and reseeds itself freely, that is not the case. The seeds drop to the ground, yet germination is slow and finicky, and a seedling can take four to five years to reach maturity. 

Prairie dropseed has a very dense root system which can make it difficult to divide the grass. If you decide to divide it, make sure to be generous and leave it in large chunks to increase its chance of reestablishing itself.

Varieties of Prairie Dropseed

Prairie dropseed is generally widely available in nurseries. There is one cultivar, Sporobolus heterolepis ‘Tara’, however, that is a vase-shaped, compact variety that grows only 18 to 24 inches tall. It is more upright and uniform than the straight species. Be sure to check which one you are purchasing to make sure it is what you need for your garden space.

Common Pests/Diseases

Part of the appeal of prairie dropseed is that it is not affected by any serious pests or diseases. It is also deer-resistant.