Hot and dry is often the weather in Minnesota in mid to late July. Fortunately, established warm season grasses can take the heat. New first year plants will need to be watered until they are established.

New plants of Molinia, right foreground will need additional water in drought. Back left switchgrass tolerates hot dry conditions.
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May 5 and finally warm weather to begin gardening again in Minnesota! It’s time to remove the tops of grasses left from last year. This opens up the plants to better light and moisture, and they look better without the dead stems from last year. In older clumps you might find a plant that was home for voles for the winter, as seen below in prairie dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepis. Good for wildlife habitat, but ouch! a lot of this crown is gone and the plant should be dug, divided, and reset to allow renewed growth this year. In addition to cover, prairie dropseed seems to be a favored food of voles. Perhaps they appreciate the coumarin found in this species, one of the chemicals usually found in fragrant grass foliage.

Prairie dropseed clump eaten at base by voles.
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So fun to see another grass selected by the Perennial Plant Association as the 2022 Perennial of the Year. And little bluestem is a great native grass that is easy to grow and has many ecosystem services. More information is on this page as well as a list for the many 25!!! kinds of little bluestem that have been or will be grown at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

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What’s in a Name?
Changes abound in the world of taxonomy and naming plants. Current cultural discussions are widening our traditional (European) thinking of plant names and how we arrive at these names.  In promoting the use of often overlooked native grasses in increasingly shrinking native habitats, I recently patented a cold hardy, early flowering selection of Sorghastrum nutans, Golden SunsetTM formerly referred to as Indian grass. Thanks to colleagues (Hummer, 2021) and insightful writers (listed herein and below) I no longer use the common name Indian grass. I am proposing and using
yellow prairie grass as a more appropriate and less offensive common name for this plant.
What’s the big deal? It’s just a common name! It’s a big deal if this name invokes harm and perpetuates and legitimizes bigotry, even if it does so unintentionally (Hunter, 1991). I am not a Native American and cannot speak for how the name Indian grass is viewed by Native Americans. I have been told the word Indian is offensive to Native Americans. And we know this word has been removed from mascots and icons of sports teams and institutions. To continue to use such terms indicates a lack of understanding, awareness, and can continue to perpetuate bigotry.

There really are no rules for common names, which vary regionally and cause much confusion. Hummer (2021) has proposed that to change common names that are slurs, insulting, or blatantly offensive would be simply to stop the common usage and adopt one of the existing but not offensive common names. Sorghastrum nutans has few, if any, additional common names. Of course, Native Americans know this grass. According to Linda Black Elk, Sorghastrum nutans, in Lakota is pȟeží šašá or íŋkpa žiží. This can be translated in English to yellow grass or pȟeží žiží (Lakota Consortium, 2021). Thus I am proposing the name yellow prairie grass for Sorghastrum nutans, a name that I hope is respectful of indigenous peoples and still accurately describes the plant.

As much as I, a lifelong horticulturist, love plants, it is important to note that Native Americans respected them more and thought of plants as “beings with their own stories, beliefs and ways of life. Protocols require us to introduce plants just as we would introduce another human being. Plants have both spiritual and physical healing to offer, it is just necessary to ask for the help they can give.” (Geniusz, 2015). To understand the respect Native Americans gave to plants broadens our view as horticulturists. Plant names can help our knowledge and show respect for all cultures.

Though challenging to change plant names and have them become widely used, it is important to remove insults from our botanical nomenclature. While changing an offensive common plant name is fairly simple, we must also address changes for offensive Latin names or binomials, as proposed by Gillman and Wright (2020). Horticultural publications should recognize and stop publishing offensive plant names. Names are important and convey different meanings to different cultures. Let us open our botanical and horticultural work to be more inclusive and benefit from all cultures adding to the wonder, art, and science of horticulture.

Mary Hockenberry Meyer, November 2021

Literature Cited:
Black Elk, Linda S. and Wilbur D. Flying By, Sr. 1998. Culturally Important Plants of the Lakota. Sitting Bull College. Accessed online 8 March 2021.

Geniusz, Mary Siisip. 2015. Plants Have So Much To Give Us All We Have To Do Is Ask: Anishinaabe Botanical Teachings. University of Minnesota Press.

Gillman, L.N. and S. D. Wright. 2020. Restoring indigenous names in taxonomy. Commun Biol 3, 609.

Hummer, Kim E. 2021. Deliberation on culturally insensitive plant names: What are plant scientists doing?  Chronica Horticulturae 61-3:10-11. SSN: 0578-039X (print), 2506-9772 (electronic).

Hunter, M. 1991. Racist relics: an ugly blight on our botanical nomenclature. The Scientist Magazine. 24 November 1991.

Lakota Consortium and Lakota Dictionary Online. 2021. 05 Nov 2021.

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Stunning fall color on purple moorgrass and many of the miscanthus on November 11, 2021 at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

Molinia ‘Skyracer’ left (divided in May 2021, so smaller than normal) and ‘Karl Forester’, right.
Miscanthus xgiganteus, back center.
Panicum ‘Cape Breeze’ foreground, purple Blackhawks big bluestem behind, miscanthus in background.
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A new six-acre prairie was planted 1 year ago at Wakehurst, part of Kew Gardens in England. Their goal is to enable visitors to “walk the world” in different plant communities. The tallgrass prairie is one of the most endangered plant communities in the world.

Sowing prairie seed by hand
Hand sowing prairie seed at Wakehurst; photo by Jim Holden, RBG Kew

The prairie seed was collected from several locations in the U.S. including the Morton Arboretum’s Schulenberg Prairie. Watch how the seed was collected, cleaned, stored, and planted.

Walking the 11-acre Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s prairie is a fun experience in any season.

Bennett Johnson Prairie, Minnesota Landscape Arboretum July
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A warm October with no frost in sight enabled giant miscanthus Miscanthus xgiganteus to fully flower on October 13, 2021. Short due to drought, the flowers and overall plant are a sight to see at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. I cannot recall seeing the flowers this spectacular in the 34 years this plant has been in the Grass Collection.

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I am proposing the new common name of yellow prairie grass for Sorghastrum nutans, as a more inclusive name than Indian grass, for this ubiquitous native grass found in much of the United States. The new name comes from the attractive yellow stamens that cover the flowers in late summer. The photo below shows the yellow stamens and light bronze flowers of Golden SunsetTM, a new early flowering form of yellow prairie grass that remains upright. This new form was patented in 2020 by the University of Minnesota and will hopefully expand the use of yellow prairie grass in landscape plantings.

Golden Sunset TM yellow prairie grass, flowering on Aug 17, 2018

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The new selection of the North American native grass Sorghastrum nutans Golden SunsetTM developed at the University of Minnesota is now available for sale. This image was taken at Bachmans in Plymouth, MN. This native grass is 5 feet tall, has nice fall color and numerous yellow flowers. It flowers earlier than other cultivars of this species and is upright with olive green foliage.

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From left: ‘Bad Hair Day’, ‘Purple Tears’, ‘Blue Fountain’, ‘Apachie Rose’, ‘Shenandoah’ on Aug 13, 2021

New switchgrass, Panicum virgatum, cultivars continue to be introduced. Side by side comparison is one of the reasons the Grass Collection at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is popular for gardeners. Which one is your favorite?

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