If you're in the market for plants with interesting texture, unique flowers and seeds, and good fall and winter color for places where nothing much grows, look to a group called oats to come to the rescue. This bunch of loosely related perennial grasses has similar common names and hardiness characteristics. They're called "oats" because their distinctive flower spikes and seeds are similar to those of agricultural cereal oats. These native plants can take heat, drought, and whatever unpleasantness Nature dishes up and still bowl you over with their bright leaf colors, bold textures, and unique flowers.
Side oats (Bouteloua curtipendula) is one of Nature's toughest grasses. A native to the mixed grass prairies from Central North America to Argentina, Bouteloua gets the name "side oats" from its flower spikes that droop from only one side of the stalk. Side oats has excellent drought tolerance and is happy growing in clay, loam, sand or rocky outcrops. It basks in hot, dry conditions where its foliage develops a blue-green color with a purple cast. In fall, the plant's reddish-brown color makes it an important specimen plant in the perennial garden. This clumping grass grows to 3 feet high. From summer to late fall, it flowers on stalks that can reach over 40 inches. Side oats are listed as threatened species in some states, so care should be taken not to collect these plants from the wild.
Photo courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder
Sea Oats (Uniola paniculata) is a hardy grass that can tolerate salt air and saline soils. They can even tolerate brief spells of being covered with salt water. They are native to the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts where they are important in stabilizing sand dunes. Sea oats leaves grow over 2 feet long and their large plume-like flower stalks stretch to 6 feet making them a stunning architectural feature, alone or grouped together to form a hedge. Sea oats are very easy to grow in moist, sandy soils in full or part sun. They do spread readily in loose soils but can be managed by cutting back the creeping rhizomes. Stalks of straw-colored seed heads make sea oats a beautiful addition to flower arrangements. When left on the plants, sea oats seeds feed sparrows and other songbirds. They're readily available in coastal nurseries or online.