Content Detail

Switch grass is one of the grasses of the tallgrass prairie and is native to much of North America. When in seed, the plant has a light airy appearance despite its tall stature. This species is native to the Chicago region according to Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research.

  • Family (English) Grass
  • Family (botanic) Poaceae
  • Tree or plant type Grass, Perennial
  • Native locale Chicago area, Illinois, North America
  • Size range Large plant (more than 24 inches)
  • Light exposure Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)
  • Hardiness zones Zone 4, Zone 5 (Northern Illinois), Zone 6 (City of Chicago), Zone 7, Zone 8, Zone 9
  • Soil preference Moist, well-drained soil
  • Tolerances Alkaline soil, clay soil, Dry sites, Occasional drought, Road salt, Wet sites
  • Season of interest early winter, midwinter, late winter, early summer, midsummer, late summer, early fall, mid fall, late fall
  • Flower color and fragrance Pink, Purple, Red, Other
  • Shape or form Upright

Size and Form: 

Switch grass has a fairly upright form, but may take on a more relaxed form at times. It can grow up to 8 feet tall.

Native geographic location and habitat: 

Native to the majority of North America. This is one of the main grasses found in the tallgrass prairie. Commonly found in moist, fertile sites. C-Value: 5. 

Leaf description:

The green leaves are about 1/2 inch wide and 18 to 24 inches long. Fall color is golden, fading to beige for winter. There are cultivars available with blue-green or red-tinged leaves that may vary also in their fall color.

Flower description: 

Flowering occurs in mid-summer. The tiny, pink to reddish flowers occur on open, airy clusters called panicles. The flowers are wind-pollinated.

Fruit description:

The small fruit (caryopsis or grains) form along the light, airy stems that held the flowers. The grass takes on a very cloud-like appearance in full flower or seed.

Plant care:

Switch grass prefers full sun but is fairly adaptable to a range of soils including sand and clay. It prefers moist soils, but can also tolerate a fair amount of drought. It is also tolerant of salt. This is a warm season grass, so its most active growth occurs in summer. It will remain standing in winter and can act as winter interest. Since this grass remains attractive through winter, it should not be cut back until early spring, before new growth begins. At that time, it can be cut down to the ground.

List of pests, diseases, and tolerances:

No serious pest problems. Switch grass can be an aggressive seeder and this can lead to excess seedlings in the garden.

Apache Rose switch grass (Panicum virgatum Prairie Winds™ ‘Apache Rose’):

This is a relatively new introduction with an upright, columnar form and rose-colored flowers/seeds. The tips of leaves turn rose-colored in fall.  It grows to 4 feet tall.

Cape Breeze switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Cape Breeze’):

 A compact cultivar growing only 2 1/2 feet tall, this plant has leaves edged in red, yellow, and orange in late fall.

Cheyenne Sky switch grass(Panicum virgatum Prairie Winds™ ‘Cheyenne Sky’): 

A compact cultivar growing only 3 feet tall with blue-green leaves that turn wine-red in summer. The flowers and seeds are also wine-red.

Cloud Nine switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Cloud Nine’):

A taller cultivar at 7 to 8 feet tall, this plant has blue leaves and golden fall color.

Dallas Blues switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Dallas Blues’):

Sporting blue-gray leaves and purplish-rose flowers/seeds., this cultivar can reach 5 to 6 feet tall.

Hot Rod switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Hot Rod‘):

Maturing to 4 feet tall, this cultivar has blue-green leaves that develop burgundy tips and then turn completely burgundy in summer. Seed clusters are also burgundy.

Heavy Metal switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’):

At 3 to 4 feet tall, with an upright to columnar form, this cultivar has metallic blue leaves.

Northwind switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’):

Very sturdy and drought tolerant, this plant reaches 5 to 6 feet tall and has blue-green leaves.

Prairie Sky switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Prairie Sky’)

This cultivar grows to 5 feet tall with an upright to arching form and blue-green leaves topped with blue flower clusters.

Rotstrahlbusch (Red) switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Rotstrahlbusch’):

This plant grows 5 feet tall with an upright habit. Green leaves change to burgundy in fall and has pink to burgundy seed heads.

Ruby Ribbons™ switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘RR1’):

At 4 feet tall, blue-green foliage turns reddish purple by mid-summer. Flower clusters also purple-red.

Shenandoah switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’):

Green, 4 foot tall leaves are tipped with reddish-purple in summer changing to all red-purple by fall.


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