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Food for butterflies: 'Eyelash grass', a Great Native Grass

Blue grama. Photo: Mary H. Meyer, UMN Extension Horticulturist
This native grass with its funny golden sails at the tip of its stems is known by many common names--"eyelash grass," "mosquito grass" (because it looks like mosquito larva), "caterpillar grass," and also, blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis). 

Why plant it

This under used native grass is a short tough perennial. It is drought tolerant and can grow with very little rainfall or supplemental water. It also provides food for more than a dozen butterflies species as well as wildlife. More on that a little later on!

Native to most states in the U.S., blue grama is found in most counties in the central and western United States. Blue grama is the state grass of Colorado and New Mexico and is an endangered species in Illinois. In Minnesota, it is common in western counties and found in most upland prairies.

Growing requirements

Blue grama is a predominant grass of the short and mixed grass prairies. It thrives on dry sites and once established it will live and self seed to colonize dry locations. Blue grama does not tolerate wet or poorly drained sits, however.

Heavy soils such as clay are not a problem unless they do not dry out. The drier the site, the shorter the plant will be.

  • In dry locations: plants tend to be individual bunch grasses. 
  • In moister locationsL short rhizomes can develop.  

Blue grama 'Blonde Ambition' at Noerenberg Memorial 
Gardens in Orono, MN.
Photo: Mary H. Meyer, UMN Extension Horticulturist

How to identify 

Blue grama foliage is blue green, a gray color that is often associated with dryland plants. The flowers are distinctive and make it an easy plant to identify. The flowers resemble eyelashes, with the florets along one side, packed tightly together in 1-3 inches.

Growing usually 6 inches to 2 feet, this is a good plant to use in median strips, along a sidewalk or street, in rock gardens, on septic berms or sunny areas.  Because blue grama grows so slowly, it can be used as a low maintenance lawn in drier locations.

Blue grama cultivars

New Mexico, certainly one of our drier states, has given us 2 selections of cultivars of blue grama. ‘Hachita’ was selected in 1957 for forage and is still sold through the USDA’s Natural Resources and Conservation Service. ‘Blond Ambition’ was selected by High Country Gardens, a nursery in New Mexico,  in 2011 and is much taller and has light yellow or pale green colored flowers.

‘Blond Ambition’ was recognized as a Plant Select superior plant in Colorado, a marketing and promotional recognition for especially good plants for Colorado.

Important food for butterflies and wildlife

Former UMN Research Scientist Diane Narem and I determined 13 butterfly larvae feed on blue grama, including, many skippers, Ottoe, Leonards, Uncas, as well as Mead’s wood nymph and the garita skipperling.  Grasshoppers and wild turkeys also feed on blue grama; bison love it as well.

Several birds have been noted as feeding on blue grama seed, including grassland sparrows and wrens, too.

For more information see:

Did you know many ornamental grasses can be food for pollinators?

Learn more about it and download the new e-book:
Gardening with Native Grasses in Cold Climates and a Guide to The Butterflies They Support

Author: Mary H. Meyer Extension Horticulturist and Professor University of Minnesota

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