Elymus hystrix got its common name, Bottlebrush Grass, by having seed heads in the shape of a bottle-washing brush. Both the seed heads and the stems are coated with a white wax, making this a gorgeous ornamental grass for your garden, especially when situated against a dark background.
The Nature of Bottlebrush Grass
In the winter, the basal foliage is lively and green, even during the coldest of winters. As a cool-season grass, Bottlebrush does most of its growth in spring. Flower stems are sent up in June and seeds are set in July.
Bottlebrush is native throughout Maryland, but only in soils with good calcium availability. That makes it uncommon in the Coastal Plain, where soils tend to be nutrient poor. Even there, it does grow wild where shell deposits have enriched the soil.
In the Garden
If your garden soil is acidic or low in calcium, you will need to plant bottlebrush near shells or concrete. It also enjoys moist to medium-dry soils, and part sun to part shade. Bottlebrush has an excellent tolerance of de-icing salts and soil compaction, making it an ideal plant for urban conditions. It will even tolerate the morning shade/afternoon sun condition that many shade plants loathe.
Bottlebrush seeds will shatter in August and September, then the stems will turn brown. If you don’t want seedlings, remove the seeds. A tidier look is obtained by removing stems at some point during the fall, leaving behind only the beautiful green basal foliage to enjoy in winter. Bottlebrush Grass is highly deer resistant.
These days people are very interested in landscaping plants with high pollinator value. People don’t generally think of native grasses as having good pollinator value, but several species of butterflies, moths, beetles, and flies use Bottlebrush as a host plant. Birds value the seeds, which are actually edible grains related to rye.
June and July are the months when Bottlebrush is at its most beautiful, so take some time to get out to a local park or demonstration garden and enjoy it!
By Sara Tangren, Ph. D
Agent Associate, University of Maryland Extension, Home & Garden Information Center | Master Gardener Trainer | Sustainable Horticulture and Native Plants