Grasses, grasses, grasses. So many kinds, and they all look like…well, grasses. Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima) is a cute little mounding plant worth trying in the garden, especially if you want an easy-to-grow planting that will do the wave all by itself every time the wind blows.

Mexican feather grass

The delicate strands of Mexican feather grass combine well with the coarse leaves of lamb’s ears and other perennials.

Photo Credit: Gerald Klingaman

Nassella tenuissima

Mexican feather grass is a mounding perennial bunchgrass with good garden characteristics.

Photo Credit: Gerald Klingaman

This graceful ornamental grass hit the garden mainstream in the mid-1990s and has proved much more widely adapted than previously thought. (Older plant references list the grass as only being hardy in the Deep South, but the plant has proved to be winter-hardy as far north as Zone 5.) It’s native to parts of west Texas, New Mexico and the north central states of Mexico, where it grows in open, dry woods, on rocky slopes and in dry, disturbed areas.

Mexican feather grass highlights one of the quandaries gardeners face when deciding what to grow. It’s one of the good guys in the landscape because it’s easy to grow, drought-tolerant and pest-free – a real low-maintenance gem subsisting on natural rainfall and not requiring pesticide sprays or fertilizers. It’s an excellent choice in xeriscape landscape plantings, too.

This 1- to 2-foot-tall perennial bunchgrass grows like a cascading fountain. The wiry, slender, hairlike leaves are green and silky in the spring and buff-colored during winter. In spring it also has a more erect habit, as the slender, silvery, nodding panicles emerge above the foliage. The grass may go dormant in dry sites in summer and begin growing again when temperatures cool and rains return in the fall.

In the garden, Mexican feather grass is best used in mass as an open and airy groundcover, for edging beds or to cover steep banks. It fits well in natural landscape plantings, rock gardens and in conventional borders, where the plant’s fine texture plays off the coarser texture of neighboring plants.

The plant will reseed in the garden but isn’t aggressive about it, so I don’t think Mexican feather grass will jump from being a garden ornamental to a weed in most areas of the eastern US. It won’t survive the close mowing and frequent watering of the typical lawn, and it’s too shade-intolerant to survive long in shady beds and borders. It could move into waste places along roadsides, where it would have to slug it out with the other weeds – most of which were introduced long ago. And the plant isn’t an aggressive-enough grower in the seedling stage to compete with established pasture grasses.

Mexican feather grass does best in full sun in a well-drained soil and tolerates soil with a pH range between 5.8 and 8.0. It can be grown from seed (sewn inside in late winter), or new plants can be propagated by springtime division of the clumps. Because the old foliage persists into the new season, shearing plants back in late winter before new growth begins gives a tidier look. If reseeding is a concern, delay the shearing operation until after the flower scapes have emerged.