Blue Grama Grass: Drought-Tolerant Native Turf

Blue grama grass is a drought-tolerant grass that can survive on as little as 7 inches of annual rain. Our guide shares growing tips!

Blue grama grass

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If you’re looking for a lawn alternative that supports wildlife, look no further than blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis)! It is often compared to buffalograss and can even be interplanted with buffalograss to create a natural lawn of native plants. 

Unlike buffalograss, it tends to stay clumpy, especially if water levels are low, and it doesn’t spread as quickly. As a plant of perennial origin, it does well during warm seasons, especially in its native habitat. When left to grow to full maturity, it produces flowers that hang at the tips of the blades and resemble eyelashes. 

The flowers of these grass plants produce seeds that will propagate even more blue grama grass. They also act as a food source for birds and other small animals. Like other grass plants of its kind, blue grama spreads through the garden via underground short rhizomes, although slowly. 

When grown as ornamental grasses, grama plants can add visual interest to your landscape by creating contrast amongst the flowers in your garden, creating a natural-looking wildflower meadow. These water-wise, native plants are also the larval host plant for skippers, butterflies, and moths. The flower and leaf attract adult species that lay eggs on the leaf blades of the plant. 

Quick Care Guide

Blue grama grass
Blue grama grass is a native grass in the western United States. Source: lostinfog
Common NameBlue grama grass, mosquito grass
Scientific NameBouteloua gracilis
FamilyPoaceae
Height & Spread30-36 inches tall and wide
LightFull sun
SoilTolerates a variety of soil types
WaterLow water, drought resistant
Pests & DiseasesGrasshoppers, rust fungus

All About Blue Grama Grass

Closeup of blue grama grass flowers
Closeup of young blue grama grass flowers. Source: AndreyZharkikh

The Bouteloua gracilis (blue grama grass) plant is most commonly found in parts of Western Canada and south across the Rocky Mountains, Great Plains, Colorado Springs, and some Midwest states into Mexico. It’s considered one of the Big 4 native grasses in Texas down to Mexico, and it is Colorado’s state grass! 

It is also sometimes referred to as mosquito grass because the seed pods have been said to resemble mosquitoes floating above the blades. It is perennial in origin, which means you can add these plants to your landscape or garden and enjoy them for years to come with very little effort. 

Blue grama grass has narrow leaf blades that are about 6 inches in their fully mature form and sometimes curl, with leaf margins that roll inwards. They are a lovely sight to see on the plains mixed with other native plants. Their flower heads form from flowers that appear on one side of the stems and look somewhat like a single bird’s wing. This one side is where the seed is swept across the plains for propagation.  

This warm season grass loves full sun. It can survive a variety of soils, including sandy soils. When these native plants are used in a lawn, they can withstand mowing to a height of 3 inches and can be kept as low-growing grass plants. If you wish to keep them green, make sure to water them during times of extreme drought. Blue grama plants will naturally turn brown when they go dormant in the winter. 

Blue Grama Grass Care

Blue grama grass is one of many ornamental grasses native to the great plains. When grown in its native habitat, it is low maintenance and drought-resistant. 

Sun and Temperature for These Native Plants

Blue grama plants grow best in full sun, with at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight per day. They do best in USDA growing zones 5-9. Blue grama’s perennial origin means that it will go dormant in the wintertime and come back with new growth in the spring. When planting from seed, it’s best to wait until the fall so the seed can cold stratify over the cold seasons. This heat-loving native grass requires warm temperatures of spring in order to aid germination. 

The most active period of the growing season occurs when temperatures are between 70-90 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition to being heat tolerant, it’s also cold tolerant. Growth will slow as the nighttime temperatures begin to drop in the fall, and eventually, in the winter, it will turn tawny, but it will never completely die back. Although blue grama grass is native to western Colorado, it does have an elevation limit on the hardiness of 7500 feet.

Native Grass Water and Humidity

Since blue grama grass loves the full sun and warm temperatures, do your watering in the morning before the heat of the day. This way, the water will be able to penetrate to the roots before the sun has a chance to evaporate the moisture. As your native grasses become established, their watering needs will change. 

In their first year of growth, they should be watered at least 2 times per week during the growing season. In their second year, this can be reduced to 1 time per week. In their third year, this can be further reduced to 1 time every 1-2 weeks. In the wintertime, snowfall should provide sufficient moisture, but in particularly dry winters, they can be watered once a month as long as air and soil temperatures are above 40 degrees and the soil is not frozen. 

Once your blue grama grass has reached maturity, then they become extremely drought resistant and can survive on as little as 7 inches of annual rain. During extended dry spells – even in the heat of summer –if they aren’t irrigated, they go dormant and may turn brown but will spring back to life at the first sign of moisture. If you wish to keep your grama grass green, then you may choose to water it during these periods. 

Soil

Grama grass flower stalk
Blue grama flowers are on a stalk that rises above the slender grass blades. Source: Matt Lavin

This bunch grass is known for tolerating a wide range of soil types. Blue grama grows naturally in dry prairies and is often found in rocky or clay soil. It does best, however, with well-draining soil. It is not found in wet, poorly drained soils and can be damaged by overwatering or soggy/waterlogged soil conditions. For this reason, it does not tolerate being planted in areas with a high water table. 

Blue grama grass also prefers neutral soil and can’t handle acidic conditions. If you’re planting in a highly rich medium, add sufficient amounts of sand to help with drainage. Fine sandy soils are just fine for this grass. 

Fertilizing

One of the benefits of growing blue grama grass is that it’s very low maintenance. It can survive on very little water, can tolerate a wide variety of soil types, and doesn’t require any regular fertilizer or soil amendments. Although fertilizing isn’t necessary, it can be especially helpful if you’re using it as a native alternative and want to maintain its green color. Fertilize with nitrogen once a year in June. When starting blue grama grass from seed, it can benefit from the boost of a layer of compost at the planting site, although this isn’t a must. 

Pruning

To understand the pruning requirements for blue grama grass, you must first understand its natural growth habits. During the active growing season from mid-May to October, the blades will be light green in color. During late summer, the seed heads will form (when grown as an ornamental and left unmowed). During the winter, it will go dormant and turn light brown in color. It can be left standing to add interest to your winter landscape. Then in February, it can handle mowing to a height of 3 inches and will then put on new growth in the spring. 

When used as a lawn alternative, it can handle being regularly mowed to a height of 3 inches, or it can be left to grow a bit taller for a more natural lawn appearance. This native grass can tolerate heavy foot traffic, so it would be fine in an area that children and pets frequent. As winter approaches, let your grass gain some height to direct energy toward the root system. It will brown during the winter but will come back to life in the spring. 

Blue Grama Propagation

Like most grasses, the blue grama grass species is mainly propagated by seeds. This is especially true when using this plant as a lawn alternative which will require you to broadcast seeds across a large area. There are native seed companies that sell seeds of wildflowers and native grasses mixed together. To plant them, broadcast the seeds over an area in the fall and then cover them lightly with a fine layer of sandy or silty material to keep them from blowing away in the wind. Then water them in and water once every two weeks to help them germinate.  

This is much easier than transplanting bunches as they are slow growing and take their time spreading. Growing from transplants is the ideal method of propagation when using Bouteloua gracilis as an ornamental grass. Then you get the benefit of a fully established plant in your landscape much sooner. You can also plant plugs of grass mixed with species of native wildflowers. 

Troubleshooting Blue Grama Grass

Blue grama flowers
The flowers look like little feathers at the tip of grass stems. Source: lostinfog

As mentioned above, blue grama grass is mostly pest and disease free! There are, however, some things to be on the lookout for. 

Grama Grass Growing Problems

Most growing problems occur when this plant is overwatered. If the ground feels spongy, you notice standing water, or if your grass is suddenly wilting, this could be a sign you’re overwatering. This plant is highly drought tolerant, and it’s better to water less rather than overwater. It can bounce back and thrive on very little moisture. However, too much moisture can cause damage.  

Pests

Grasshopper species have been known to chomp on the leaf of blue grama grasses, but in general, their feeding isn’t enough to cause major damage to the plant. Usually, the grasshopper population is easily controlled by your neighborhood birds and other small wildlife. 

Diseases

The most prevalent disease issue with this grass is fungal rust which, as its name would suggest, is caused by a fungus. One sign of rust fungus is small reddish-orange spots on the leaves. This fungus prefers warm, wet, and humid environments. Watering only in extreme drought and only when the clumps of grass have a chance to dry in the coolest part of the day can help avoid these issues. 

Neem oil or a copper fungicide can help control rust applied to the foliage can help control rust on the grass. Careful applying these in native habitat restoration projects and pollinator gardens, as they can be dangerous to pollinators.  

Frequently Asked Questions

Bouteloua gracilis
A thick patch of Bouteloua gracilis. Source: John Rusk

Q: Does blue grama grass spread?

A: It does spread via underground roots that are short rhizomes. However, it tends to grow in clumps, especially in warmer climates. 

Q: What does blue grama grass do?

A: It is a warm-season grass that can be used as a decorative grass or native alternative that survives on low levels of summer precipitation. When left to grow to its full height, it will put out a flower in the form of horizontal blossom clusters that resemble eyelashes. 

Q: Do you cut back blue grama grass?

A: When used as a native alternative, it can survive mowing to a height of 3 inches. When used as an ornamental grass, it can be left to grow to its full height and then cut back in February right before it begins to put on new growth in the spring. 

Q: How long does it take blue grama to grow?

A: This low-growing grass is known to spread slowly. As a perennial, it will slowly spread year after year, depending on the growing conditions. 

Q: What animals eat blue grama grass?

A: This grass is sometimes used as forage for livestock such as sheep and cattle. It also attracts seed-eating birds and is the larval host plant for skippers, butterflies, and moths. 

Q: Is blue grama deer resistant?

A: Yes, it is deer-resistant, but it is loved by elk and bison. 

Q: Is blue grama grass salt tolerant?

A: It is moderately tolerant to salt. 

Q: How do you harvest blue grama grass seed?

A: Wait until the seed pods have reached full maturity after the fall flower has faded. They should feel hard and dry to the touch. The pods should break open easily in your hand, revealing the seed. 

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