A Plant for All Seasons

Inland Sea oats in August ~ Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve

The plant variously known as inland sea oats, inland wood oats, and Indian wood oats may have received those common names to help distinguish it from the ‘sea oats’ (Uniola paniculata) which grow in sandy coastal areas. 

Inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) aren’t found anywhere near the ocean. A clump-forming, upright grass, the plant grows along the rocky slopes of streams and rivers, in woodland areas, and in flood plains. A shade and drought tolerant ornamental grass that also can thrive in full sunlight, it’s often used for erosion control, and is prized by wildlife both for cover and for food.

Easily recognized because of its flat, drooping seed heads and arching stems, the plant is native to the eastern United States from Pennsylvania to Florida, and thrives as far west as Wisconsin and Texas. While it can become a little tatty at the very end of its growing cycle, it soon re-emerges, ready to delight the eye.

Inland Sea oats in December ~ Lost Maples State Natural Area


Comments always are welcome.

77 thoughts on “A Plant for All Seasons

    1. That’s part of what makes it such a great garden plant; it has something to offer all through the year. After it dries, if there’s a big stand of it, the slightest breeze will set it rustling. It’s a great sound.

    1. I looked back at the description, and found that the seeds are eaten by small mammals and birds, and the leaves provide graze for mammals. That would be your deer. The nice thing about the plant is that it’s not given to disease or insect damage, and it spreads like crazy if you want to let it do that. So, even if your deer gave it a good munching, it would come back.

    1. When the seeds are fresh, they have a degree of translucence that’s really appealing. I had to go back and look at other photos from the same day to identify the lavender haze in the background. It was Helmet Skullcap, or Scutellaria integrifolia.

    1. I saw that cautionary note on a couple of the garden sites. One writer said it was easy to pull when it started running amok in a garden, but that could mean a lot of pulling. Given what I’ve seen of it in the wild, ‘running amok’ hardly describes it. I remember that we talked about little bluestem for an empty space in your garden, but you thought it would be too shady. This might be just the ticket — apart from that tendency to spread, of course.

    1. Which area does your daughter live near(er)? There are four hundred wonderful miles between the green version and the brown! I think I remember that she might be in the hill country — and Lost Maples — but I’m not sure.

      Sometimes I’m so slow. I’ve been wondering what I could coax into growing on my shady patio, and I finally realized that this grass would do just fine. Apparently it does well in pots, too, so I might give it a try when spring comes.

    1. Hooray! It always tickles me when I find that one of ‘my’ plants is a part of someone else’s world. In fact, a stem of this plant, with those dangling seeds, would be just right for tickling the back of someone’s neck!

  1. Wouldn’t these seed heads make lovely models for stained glass wind chimes? That’s what I thought of when I looked at those pictures. Of course, they wouldn’t work here in the flatlands. The wind would beat them to pieces, but on a sheltered porch in a cabin in the piney woods . . . .

    1. I’ve never thought about the strength of your winds vis-a-vis wind chimes, but your comment makes sense. My wind chimes are metal, but even so I have to take them down from time to time; stained glass might work for you, but there would have to be a metal casing around the edges. I can imagine those seedheads done in multi-colored glass; how they’d look would be as great as their sound.

  2. Ah, an August–December romance with inland sea oats. Your explanation for the common name is the same one I’ve read. And when you mentioned Chasmanthium, for the first time ever it dawned on me just now that although we split the word up into syllables as Chas-man-thi-um, the semantic division is really Chasm-anthium, meaning a ‘chasm’ or ‘gap,’ + ‘flower.’ When I checked Shinners and Mahler’s I found confirmation: “Greek: chasme, gaping, and anthus, flower, presumably from the form of the spikelets.” It took only 20 years for that to occur to me.

    This species is plentiful in the wooded areas of northwest Austin, including Great Hills Park. Your first picture looks as if you managed to grab some backlighting.

    1. Well, as the Brits would say, “Mind the gap!” Apparently in Seattle and the northeastern United States “Watch the gap” is used, but I like the British version better for transportation warnings. When it comes to inland sea oats, watching the gaps in those pretty seed heads is just fine.

      I remembered that Tina has this in her garden, and that it thrives there. You’re right about the backlightng, although it was sort of sidelighting. The plants were in shade, but there was an open area to the left that allowed more light to come in.

      1. You’ve reminded me of something I haven’t though about in ages: a few New York City subway stations that lie on curved sections of track have gap fillers that slide out to reduce the gaps between the platform and the doorways on subway cars.

    2. lol. Funny how our minds latch on to things (when we allow them to wander freely; ) isn’t it Steve? I find that’s been happening a bit more frequently these past few months… There’s one ‘plus’?

  3. I think I’ve seen these things, but I never knew what they were — thanks for teaching me, Linda! Proves that something doesn’t have to “flower” to be pretty, right?!

    1. They may not flower like a rose or an iris, but they do have the advantage of making a pretty addition to a garden — or a vase — for months at a time. There’s something about those arching stems that’s so attractive; they look more delicate than they actually are.

  4. One of my favorite plants and given the amount of shade in my garden, well-used and appreciated addition. Nice set of shots, Linda! I’ll be cutting mine back sometime in February, ready for another long season of beauty.

    1. As a matter of fact, I came across your 2014 post about inland sea oats through the seasons when I was researching them. It was great fun to see how you’d used them, and to see their appearance change from month to month. This year, I’m going to look for that transition from green to brown; I enjoyed seeing that on your post as much as anything.

      1. I love that transition of color! I work at planting that which feeds wildlife and truthfully, I’ve never seen birds at the oats. But they’re such lovely, hardy plants for a landscape, I won’t do without them.

    1. It seems as though the plant has a lot of benefits and very little downside, unless you’re a gardener with limited space who’s trying to keep it under control. It’s certainly attractive and adaptable — what’s not to like?

    1. I found this interesting tidbit on an eat-the-weeds website: “a relative that was thought extinct, now called Distichlis palmeri, is being raised for commercial grain use in Australia. It was a staple of the Cocopah Indians in the desert southwest of the United States.”

      Even better, the leaves of this species are host to an endemic midwestern butterfly called Linda’s Roadside Skipper (Amblyscirtes linda). And here I thought Linda’s skipper was the guy who taught me to sail.

  5. I don’t know which I like best, the brown or green. I was surprised to hear from Curt that they are edible! See – I do learn something every day!

    1. I’d never thought of it being edible, but I found this little tidbit after snooping around: “a relative that was thought extinct, now called Distichlis palmeri, is being raised for commercial grain use in Australia. It was a staple of the Cocopah Indians in the desert southwest of the United States.”

      As the old saying has it, what goes around, comes around!

    1. I’d bet you’ve seen the real thing, simply because, once dried, they last for a really long time: months, not weeks. I can’t decide whether I like them better fresh or dried. Both are lovely, and now that I’ve studied them a bit, I’m eager to find them again in spring.

    1. Your Bellwort’s a pretty one. It’s interesting that it ended up with oats in its common name. I wouldn’t have made that sort of association, but I maybe those arcing stems played a role. It reminds me more of a couple of woodland flowers I saw in east Texas. Of course I can’t remember the names, and now I can’t even find online photos — so it goes!

    1. They are pretty, aren’t they? When I was snooping around, I found some lovely photos of them on the Highline; I suspect you might have seen them there, as well as in other places.

  6. Both in August and in December it looks quite beautiful. Even its name, Sea Oats, is evocative, somehow. It makes me wonder where the expression “sowing his wild oats” originated. Perhaps Dr. Google will know!

    1. Dr. Google did know. I have a site I visit when I want to learn about English idioms and phrases, and here’s what that site says:

      “The saying is referring to a European grass species with the formal name Avena fatua, which has for centuries in English been called wild oats. Some botanists think it’s the wild original of cultivated oats. Farmers have since ancient times hated it because it’s a weed that’s useless as a cereal crop, but its seeds have always been difficult to separate from those of useful cereals and so tended to survive and multiply from year to year. The only way to remove it was to tramp the fields and hand-weed it. Even today it’s still a problem, despite modern seed cleaning and selective weedkillers.

      So, sowing wild oats was the archetypal useless occupation, indeed worse than useless.”

      There’s more information here, including a bit about the broadening of the term to include the activities of certain young men!

  7. These are lovely photos, Linda, very graceful.
    The fields of cultivated oats are my favorite crop to see, even more than wheat. A beautiful silvery-green when young, then darkening through the summer, and then a beautiful tawny or golden yellow when ready for harvest. And often the stems arch a bit, a bit like your wild examples.

    1. A lovely plant does lend itself to lovely photos. Your description of oat fields is lovely, too. I couldn’t remember seeing fields of oats, and now I know why; most of the oats grown in Texas are used for grazing or forage. The big oat-producing states are in the north: North and South Dakota, Michigan, Wisconsin. I’m not sure we even had oats in Iowa when I was living there; corn and soybeans were the crops of choice. No arching stems for those crops, I’m afraid.

  8. Beautiful background and colors of inland sea oats. I think you really are capturing lovely photos of a variety of native plants. Many years ago I located several small 4×4 inch pots at a local nursery and planted maybe three in a spot that received dappled sunlight. True to its description, it will grow just about anywhere, reproduce faithfully in unlikely spots, and can always be depended on to deliver clumps that increase in size. Lovely drooping seed heads last well into the following spring if not consumed by the birds.

    1. I’m thinking that I might be able to coax some to fill in a couple of bare spots around my patio. The knees of the bald cypress mean that no mowing happens, and nothing else seems inclined to set up shop there. There’s dappled sunlight to good indirect light, and it’s moist because of the sprinklers, so it would be worth trying some seed. If the plants flourish, they’d have plenty of birds in the neighborhood that might favor them. Besides — they’re pretty.

    1. From what I’ve read and from what others have said here, its inclination is to grow and spread, so you might get lucky. I’m going to try some in a pot on my patio, as an alternative to the flowers I’d like to grow but can’t, because of insufficient (that is, no) direct sunlight.

    1. I’m sure your sea oats were Uniola paniculata. I went back and relabeled the plants in the photos here with the name ‘inland sea oats’ to distinguish them from the sea oats you know from the Island. This iNaturalist map shows ‘your’ oats limited to just the coast. If you zoom in several times you can see the reports from Jamaica Beach, San Luis pass, and so on. I’ve seen them on the dunes down there, but didn’t realize what they were. These inland or wood oats are scattered across the state.

  9. Lovely delicate images! The names are very attractive too. I have seen a garden variety of chasmanthium here but only the once…if I remember right, it was a more upright plant.

    1. I found this garden center selling the plant there. It tickled me that the common names they listed are ‘mini bamboo’ and ‘spangle grass.’ It’s a great example of non-native plants being given exotic names. Granted, bamboo is a grass, but bamboo and inland sea oats are pretty distant cousins.

      Still, it’s great that it’s available there. I wonder if it spreads as easily there as it does here.

    1. I was quite surprised at how nicely that first photo turned out, especially since I’m still not very proficient when it comes to photographing in full shade. In this instance, there was an open area to the left that provided some sidelight, and I think that’s what contributed to the delicacy of the color. It’s one of my favorite plants, and it tickles me no end that I found the summer and winter images in locations four hundred miles apart. The common elements were woods and water.

    1. I didn’t realize how widely spread this plant is, or how tolerant it is of varying conditions. When I read insect and disease free, tolerant of drought, and willing to grow in clay, I thought, “Even I could grow this stuff.” And it is nice to look back on those warmer times. We’re doing our usual January plunge into real winter — even the squirrels seem to have gone back to bed after their breakfast.

    1. I’m going to give it a go in pots this spring. It finally penetrated my thick skull that it would be a great plant for my shady patio. I might even give it a try in some corners around the building where nothing else has taken hold. As long as I can keep the yard crew away from it, I think it might work.

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