Grasses & Sedges


Prairie Grasses

Panic Grass
Karen Yukich

When people think of the pre-European settlement landscape of Ontario, they often think of forests. However, historical records show that a significant portion of Southern Ontario was actually prairie and savannah habitats. This is a little known secret because so much of these landscapes were transformed into agriculture, due to the high fertility of their soils, the suppression of fire (necessary to keep trees and shrubs from moving in), and the ease at which prairies could be cleared compared to heavily forested areas.

With far less than 1% of the originally existing prairie remaining in Ontario, it is one of the most endangered ecosystems in Canada. And in fact, High Park is one of the few remaining habitats where tallgrass prairie species can be found.

These species have extensive root systems, which helps them to survive drought. Did you know that 65% of the biomass of tallgrass species is actually in their underground roots? In addition to storing CO2 in their roots, these species are also critical in providing habitat for a number of rare bird and butterfly species, who have had their habitats mostly destroyed in Ontario.

Read on to find out more about four of the most common tallgrass prairie species found in High Park.

Big Bluestem
Sharon Lovett

Big Bluestem (Andropogen gerardii)

This is one of the most dominant grasses in typical Ontario prairies. It is also called “Turkey Foot”, because of the similarity that its triple spiked ends have to, you guessed it, a turkey’s foot. This grass, which can be found in both wet and dry prairies, can grow higher than three metres! It’s leaves are dull and long, and it turns shades of red, brown and deep purple.

Little Bluestem
Sharon Lovett

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

This is a shorter grass in prairie terms, growing just to a height of 1.3 metres usually. In contract to Big Bluestem, it only exists on drier sites. It can be recognized by its feathery look, which gives it its Latin name (scoparium means broom). Watch for it to turn a mixture of tan, brown and wine-red in late summer and fall.

Indian Grass
Sharon Lovett

Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)

Karen Yukich

Like Big Bluestem, Indian Grass is often widespread and dominant in prairie communities, and can grow in both wet or dry sites. Another similarity to Big Bluestem is its massive height, up to 2.5 metres. It flowers in late summer and early fall, and when mature, is a beautiful gold.

Canada Wild Rye
Sharon Lovett

Canada Wild Rye (Elymus Canadensis)

This is a tallgrass prairie species; a native perennial which grows in bunches 2 to 6 feet tall. The gold/brown coloured grass has a long plumed head often bending with its weight, with coarse thick bristles that curve outwards. Canada wild rye grows over most of the North American continent, except the extreme southern and eastern regions. It acts as a native nurse crop, growing on disturbed sites, but not competing with other species, and provides erosion control. Birds and small mammals use it for seed and forage and as cover.

Wildlife and humans both appreciate the flavour and nutritious benefits of Canada wild rye, as rye can be used in rye whiskey, bourbon or vodka - or even bread.


Principal Author: Barbi Lazarus


Pratt, Paul D. The Prairies of Southwestern Ontario. From John Theberge’s The Natural History of Ontario, 1989.

Delaney, Kim, et al. Planting the Seed: A Guide to Establishing Prairie and Meadow Communities in Southern Ontario, 2000.

Tallgrass Ontario website Accessed: August 2010

For more information on grasses and sedges, see also: Ontario Grasses website and Planting the Seed A Guide to Establishing Prairie and Meadow Communities in Southern Ontario, Environment Canada

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Content last modified on September 05, 2017, at 07:40 PM EST