9 Best Drought-Tolerant Ornamental Grasses

purple fountain grass

Summers are meant for pool parties and barbeques, not thirsty grasses that keep you rushing to the hose or sprinkler all summer long. These drought-tolerant ornamental grasses are specifically adapted to thrive in desert-like conditions, so once they’re established, you can wave goodbye to high water bills and wilting plants and enjoy a gorgeous natural landscape. 

From tall swaying reeds to fine-leaved mounds, drought-tolerant ornamental grasses make stunning front yard statement pieces, footpath accents, and garden borders. Not only will these grasses give you a low-water lawn, but many of them attract pollinators, so you can sustain the local ecosystem and get a colorful summer show of butterflies, birds, and bees.

1. Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

If enormous, showy flowers aren’t your cup of tea, big bluestem is for you. This tall, narrow native bunchgrass will attract gorgeous pollinators without overwhelming your lawn aesthetic. It’s a host plant for butterfly larvae, and its nectar is a vital food source for the common wood-nymph

Big bluestems have a long lifespan and are ideal for wildflower gardens and meadows, cottage gardens, and privacy hedging. Their long, sturdy roots (which can extend as deep as 10 feet) take time to establish, but once they’re healthy and strong they’ll stand strong against erosion. Bluestems are excellent for slopes and hilly areas where other grasses refuse to grow.

Big bluestem’s solid blue-green stems spread primarily by rhizomes (underground stems) and by self-seeding. Its turkey foot-shaped flowers bloom in fall, changing from red to burgundy as cold weather approaches. Leaves and stems turn orange and copper-red to give your lawn a boost of winter interest.

  • Season type: Warm-season
  • Hardiness zones: 4-9
  • Sun exposure: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil needs: Sandy, clay; well-draining
  • Mature size: 4-8 feet tall; 2-3 feet wide
  • Special features: Pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant, pollution-tolerant, tolerates black walnut

2. Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens)

Green is gorgeous, but how about adding some color contrast to your garden? The compact, arching blue oat grass gives a splash of ice blue to your rock garden, perennial border, or around stone walkways. It forms tidy mounds with fine, sturdy blades that contrast beautifully with larger, emerald green plants.

In warmer climates, blue oat grass grows as an evergreen and produces 4-foot flower stems and attractive pale blue flower plumes in midsummer. In cooler regions, blue oat grass turns tan in winter and may bloom less consistently, but you can still rely on plenty of winter interest. 

This small, hardy grower plays well with other drought-resistant perennials. It’s an excellent companion to Russian sage (Salvia yangii), blanket flower (Gaillardia grandiflora), carpet sedum (Sedum lineare), and English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia).

  • Season type: Cool-season
  • Hardiness zones: 4-8
  • Sun exposure: Full sun
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay; well-draining
  • Mature size: 2-3 feet tall; 2-3 feet wide
  • Special features: Salt-tolerant, deer-resistant, pollution-tolerant

3. Elijah blue fescue (Festuca glauca)

For a brilliant pop of turquoise foliage, Elijah blue fescue is calling your name. This handsome dwarf grass forms a mound of arching, needle-like blades that last year-round in warmer climates, changing from light silver in spring to deep emerald green in fall. 

This low-maintenance, cold-hardy stunner is perfect for both cooler northern regions (where it goes dormant and turns brown in winter) and warmer southern regions (where it behaves like an evergreen). Plant Elijah blue fescue in your rock garden, cottage garden, rain garden, or container garden, or around borders and walkways for attractive, easy-care greenery. 

A cool-season grass, Elijah blue fescue grows strongest in spring and fall. In early summer, upright 14- to 18-inch stalks rise above the foliage and display light green and purple flowers, which turn tan later in the season. You can leave these flowers to self-seed or deadhead them to prevent your fescues from becoming weedy. 

  • Season type: Cool-season
  • Hardiness zones: 4-9
  • Sun exposure: Full sunlight, partial shade
  • Soil needs: Well-draining
  • Mature size: 6-12 inches tall; 6-12 inches wide
  • Special features: Pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant, pollution-tolerant

4. Fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides)

Resembling a flowing fountain, fountain grass will add movement to your garden every time the wind blows. This tall, upright warm-season grass has finely textured, deep green foliage and purple, pink, cream, or copper flower spikes that resemble bottlebrushes that blossom in late summer. 

In fall, leaves turn orange-bronze and fade to beige as the cool weather creeps in, providing natural winter interest. In early spring, trim your fountain grass to 3 to 6 inches above the ground to prepare it for fresh spring growth. You can do this by tying clumps together with string and cutting them with a hedge trimmer.

Plant fountain grass around hardscape features like patios or pathways to gently define the space and give your lawn vertical interest. Some homeowners find that fountain grass looks too weedy in spring before flowers form, so you may want to plant it with coral bells (Heuchera) or purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) for definition.

Pro Tip: Plant fountain grass with the crown of the plant (where the stem meets the roots) above ground level to prevent root rot, especially in areas with poorer drainage.

  • Season type: Warm-season
  • Hardiness zones: 4-10 (depending on the cultivar)
  • Sun exposure: Full sun to partial shade (but will not flower well in shade)
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay; well-draining
  • Mature size: 1-4 feet tall; 1-3 feet wide
  • Special features: Deer-resistant, pest-resistant

5. Leatherleaf sedge (Carex buchananii)

Native to New Zealand, leatherleaf sedge is a short, mounding grass with hairlike, copper-orange foliage that gently arches to the ground and sways in the breeze. It grows in dense, circular mounds and is an excellent companion plant with bulbs and other drought-tolerant perennials and shrubs. 

Butterfly-friendly and cold-hardy, leatherleaf sedge is perfect for rock gardens, pollinator gardens, and winter gardens, and it’s an excellent accent around pathways and in container gardens. Tolerating temperatures down to zero degrees Fahrenheit, it’s a favorite among homeowners in the Transition Zone (the middle belt of the country) from Georgia up to Pennsylvania.

In warmer climates, leatherleaf sedge grows as an evergreen to provide cheerful winter interest. In summer, small silver flowers emerge and can be cut for a lovely bouquet or dried display. Cut back the foliage in early spring to prepare your plants for fresh, healthy growth.

  • Season type: Cool-season
  • Hardiness zones: 6-9
  • Sun exposure: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay; well-draining
  • Mature size: 1-2 feet tall; 1-2 feet wide
  • Special features: Pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant

6. Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana)

With showstopping silver-white plumes that grow up to 10 feet tall, pampas grass is guaranteed to give your lawn plenty of dramatic flair. This bold warm-season perennial has arching, razor-sharp green blades, and upright stalks that bloom in late summer, displaying silky white, pink, or golden tufts covered with tiny flowers. 

Native to Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, pampas grass is an old pro at handling the dry heat. It’s excellent as an eye-catching focal plant or planted in groups at the back of a perennial border, and its deep roots make it ideal for stabilizing eroded banks and rocky hillsides. Pampas grass is a strong spreader, which is useful for privacy hedging but means you’ll need to trim it frequently to prevent it from invading the rest of your lawn. 

Pampas grass is dioecious (has separate male and female plants), so you’ll need to plant both male and female varieties for successful pollination. Female plants have showier plumes than male plants, so pampas grass is generally propagated by dividing a female clump. If you plant pampas grass from seed, you may end up with a bunch of male plants that won’t give you a beautiful summer show.

  • Season type: Warm-season
  • Hardiness zones: 8-12 (some cultivars are hardy to zone 6)
  • Sun exposure: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay, rocky; well-draining
  • Mature size: 10 feet tall; 6 feet wide
  • Special features: Deer-resistant, pest-resistant, salt-tolerant

7. Panic grass (Panicum virgatum)

A tidy border, hedge, or privacy screen of panic grass will ease your lawn panic. Also known as switchgrass, this attractive arching prairie grass attracts butterflies and provides year-round interest. It forms a dense, tall column of clumping green growth with airy pink flowers in summer, yellow-orange leaves and shiny red seeds in fall, and tan leaves in winter. 

Panic grass is an eco-friendly resource for native birds and wildlife: Once flowers have gone to seed, leave them on the plant to provide nesting material and food throughout the winter months. This graceful green-blue grass prefers full sun but can grow in partial shade with a more floppy growth habit. 

Caution: Do not plant panic grass directly around your house, as it poses a high fire risk.

  • Season type: Warm-season
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun exposure: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil needs: Sandy, clay
  • Mature size: 3-4 feet tall; 2-3 feet wide
  • Special features: Pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant, pollution-tolerant, salt-tolerant

8. Purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra)

With moisture-seeking roots that can extend down to 16 feet into the soil, the graceful, drought-resistant purple needlegrass has earned its title as the State Grass of California. An evergreen bunchgrass that grows in dense stands, purple needlegrass produces long, wispy stalks and delicate purple-gold seedheads. These seed heads are double-bent so they look like a needle and thread — hence the name “needlegrass.”

As a native species, purple needlegrass is exceptionally beneficial to wildlife. It’s an important food source for deer, elk, and butterflies, including the Juba skipper and common ringlet. Plus, its deep root system helps support the native oak population. 

Weed out non-native grasses before planting needlegrass, as young needlegrass can struggle to compete with weeds. Once established, needlegrass is an exceptionally strong self-pollinator and seeds are dispersed by the wind. 

Caution: Purple needlegrass seeds are sharp and spiny and can get caught in pet fur, so keep Fido away from your garden or mow the seeds prior to maturity. 

  • Season type: Cool-season
  • Hardiness zones: 7-11
  • Sun exposure: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay; well-draining
  • Mature size: 2-3 feet tall; 1.5-2 feet wide
  • Special features: Deer-resistant, rabbit-resistant, fire-tolerant, pollution-tolerant

9. Zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’)

If you’re imagining a green zebra, you’re not wrong. A member of the drought-hardy maiden grass family, zebra grass is as strikingly striped as it sounds, with graceful green and gold variegated leaves that arch to the ground.

This tall bunchgrass boasts pink and copper, tassel-like flowers in late summer that turn to long silver-white plumes in fall. As cooler weather approaches, striped leaves slowly change to gold for an attractive fall display. In winter, plants turn beige but retain their silver and white plumes for winter interest. 

Zebra grass makes an eye-catching statement plant or large container plant, or you can grow multiple plants as a privacy screen, hedge, or cottage garden border. For a long-lasting flower arrangement, cut and dry flowers in late summer. Cut back the foliage in late winter or early spring as new blades appear to promote healthy new growth. 

  • Season type: Warm-season
  • Hardiness zones: 4-9
  • Sun exposure: Prefers full sun, can grow in partial shade (but leaves may become floppy)
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay; well-draining
  • Mature size: 5-8 feet tall; 4-6 feet wide
  • Special features: Deer-resistant, rabbit-resistant, pollution-tolerant, tolerates black walnut

FAQ about drought-tolerant ornamental grasses

1. What is ornamental grass?

The term refers to both “real” grasses (of the Poaceae or Gramineae family) and close relatives that resemble grass, like sedges, rushes, and bamboo. Ornamental grasses encompass a broader range of perennial plants than traditional grass, with different textures, heights, colors, and growth habits, from ground covers to 15-foot-tall rushes. They can creep along the soil surface, grow in mounds, arch downward, or stand perfectly upright. 

2. What does “bunchgrass” mean?

Bunchgrasses grow in singular clumps or tufts, as opposed to grasses that spread horizontally to form a sod or mat. Bunchgrasses do not produce well-developed rhizomes or stolons that would promote lateral growth; instead, they are surrounded by a leaf sheath that contains growth. This means that bunchgrasses grow more erectly and vertically than sod-forming grasses.

3. How long does it take for ornamental grass to establish?

Drought-tolerant ornamental grasses typically require one year of consistent watering (1 inch of water per week) to grow long, strong roots. After a year, you can enjoy beautiful swaying grass in your yard that won’t require supplemental water except in extreme drought conditions.

First week since planting – water daily, keeping the soil moist
First year since planting – 2 times per week (depending on rainfall)
Second year and beyond since planting – As needed

4. What is cool-season versus warm-season grass?

Cool-season grasses thrive in cooler, northern climates while warm-season grasses are best suited for warmer, southern regions. That doesn’t mean that a cool-season grass can’t grow in Texas or a warm-season grass can’t grow in Michigan, but it does mean the grass will be more susceptible to disease and temperature stress and may behave as an annual rather than a perennial.

Cool-season grasses go dormant during particularly hot summers, and warm-season grasses go dormant during cold winters. So, if you’re growing warm-season grass in a cool climate, expect it to stop growing and turn brown as temperatures drop. Likewise, if you’re growing cool-season grass in a warm climate, expect it to go dormant during the heat of summer.

5. Are there other types of drought-tolerant ornamental grasses? 

There sure are! This list is a sampling of some of the best ornamental grasses, but check out other drought-resistant ornamental grasses like: 

Blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis)
Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens)
Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’)
Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra)
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima)
Pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris)

If you live in the South, be wary of Japanese bloodgrass. It’s highly invasive in warmer climates and has been declared illegal in some states. 

Ornament your lawn with ornamental grass

Ready to create your own peaceful sanctuary complete with swaying grasses that won’t demand daily watering? If you’re growing warm-season grass, sow seeds in late spring to early summer for optimal growth. If you’re growing cool-season grass, opt for an early fall or spring planting. 

Looking out your window at graceful grasses may be just the relaxation you need, but yard care during the dry summer months can be draining. When the hot sun starts to shine, call a local lawn care pro to take care of the gardening, mowing, and cleanup for you.

Main Photo Credit: John Tann from Sydney, Australia | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0

Maille Smith

Maille-Rose Smith is a freelance writer and actor based in New York. She graduated from the University of Virginia. She enjoys watching theatre, reading mysteries, and listening to psychology podcasts. She is an orchid enthusiast and always has a basil plant growing in her kitchen.