Drought-tolerant native plants and turf grass alternatives, a short list
After several wet years, most of Minnesota is experiencing severe drought. Many native plants can withstand dry periods due to their deep roots and other adaptations. The following species are among those observed in recent months to withstand drought conditions. Keep in mind that all plants need some water to grow and to stay healthy, and other conditions, such as soil types and light, will help determine a plant’s success. Native plants provide many benefits, such as improving water quality and providing habitat for wildlife.
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One of the reasons we have prairies and grasslands in the West and forests in the East is due to precipitation patterns. Trees and shrubs are limited in the West by a lack of rainfall. where these woody species don’t grow, prairies with grasses, sedges and wildflowers fill the landscape.
Short prairie grasses such as blue grama Bouteloua gracilis and little bluestem Schizachyrium scoparium seem to be thriving in drought conditions. They have dense and somewhat deep root systems that allow them to find the moisture they need. Their short stature (1 to 3 feet) means they don’t need as much moisture to thrive. The taller grasses such as big bluestem and Indian grass, while still growing, flowering and setting seed, appear much shorter and less robust because of the drought. The short prairie grasses are generally much better suited to the home landscape as well. Blue grama and little bluestem have attractive flowers and seed heads, and provide fall and winter color interest.
Spotted horsemint, Monarda punctata, AKA spotted beebalm, while much less robust this year, continues to bloom during the drought. It prefers dry, sandy soils but will also grow in heavier, wetter soils. It’s close relative, wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa bloomed beautifully earlier this summer in very dry conditions, but then faded with the summer heat and lack of precipitation. Both species are pollinator magnets and make great garden plants.
Many of Minnesota’s milkweed species are handling the drought in stride. Butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, sent up its attractive, bright orange blooms earlier this summer. Its large seed pods will soon produce many seeds that will be dispersed by wind. There will be plenty of these seeds for you to plant yourself or give to friends and neighbors. Other prairie milkweed species such as common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, and whorled milkweed, Asclepias verticillata, don’t mind the drought conditions either. Milkweeds are the host plant for monarch butterflies, and they are also used by many other beneficial insects.
Sweet-scented Joe Pye weed, Eutrochium purpureum, seemed to laugh at the drought conditions. Its pale pink flowers are a butterfly magnet, and it is visited by many moth and bee species as well. This plant can reach heights of 6 feet, so give it space to grow. It also readily spreads in the right conditions.
It is just starting to bloom, so the results are not yet in- but large-leaved aster Eurybia macrophylla seems to have handled the drought well. Its large leaves make a great ground cover when not in bloom. Other asters, such as aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) and sky-blue aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense) can withstand drought, grow in both part shade and sun, and bring late-season blooms and floral forage for pollinators to the fall landscape.
Turf Grass Alternatives
Are you tired of constantly watering your lawn, or perhaps watering restrictions mean your lawn turned brown and went dormant? Most lawns are composed of Kentucky bluegrass — a cool-season grass from Europe and Asia. While it might look nice in the spring and fall, its shallow, puny roots require lots of water and other inputs to keep it green in the heat of the summer. If you can’t “lose the lawn,” consider turf grass alternatives such as fine fescues. Many native plant nurseries and others sell “No Mow”, “Low Mow”, or “Eco-Grass” seed mixes, that are largely comprised of fine fescues. While many of the fescues in these mixes are not native to Minnesota, they are not known to be invasive. Fine fescues have deeper roots than Kentucky bluegrass, and are better able to withstand drought. They need very little watering once established. Bonus: in most landscapes, you only have to mow fine fescue lawns a few times per year.
About the author: Paul Erdmann has served as a buffer and soil loss specialist at BWSR since 2017. Before joining BWSR, he worked for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Natural Shore Technologies, Ramsey Conservation District, and Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District. Since 2006, Erdmann has worked to protect the land and water, focusing on ecological restoration, wildlife habitat, invasive species, stormwater management, habitat-friendly solar, sustainability, and compliance and enforcement.