Sorghastrum nutans (Indian Grass)

Plant Info
Also known as: Yellow Indian Grass
Family:Poaceae (Grass)
Life cycle:perennial
Habitat:part shade, sun; dry to moist soil; open prairie, open woods, savanna
Fruiting season:August - September
Plant height:3 to 7 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FACU MW: FACU NCNE: FACU
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Cluster type: panicle

[photo of flowering panicle] Narrow plume 6 to 20 inches long at the top of the stem, lance-elliptic in outline, with many wiry, spreading to ascending branches, each with a few secondary branches. Branches are up to 4 inches long and mostly alternate.

[photo of flowers] Along branches are groups of 2 or 3 fertile spikelets (flower clusters), each containing a single flower. The glumes (bracts at the base of a spikelet) are about equal in length and somewhat shiny, the first densely covered in long hairs and wrapping around much of the spikelet, the second glume hairless. The lemma (2 bracts surrounding the flower) are slightly shorter than the spikelet; at the tip of the fertile lemma is an awn up to ¾ inch long that is bent in the lower third. The glumes and lemma are all narrowly lance-shaped with a pointed tip, with the long yellow stamens and feathery white styles poking out from the sides. Spikelets are 5 to 8 mm long excluding the awn, golden brown to chestnut in color, on wiry stalks. 1 or 2 feathery appendages are connected at the base of the fertile spikelet. These are actually the hairy stalks of sterile spikelets; they have no glumes, lemma or flowers.

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf type: simple

[photo of leaves] Leaves are all alternate, nearly erect to flopping, 2 to 24 inches long and up to ½ inch wide, mostly flat, and rough textured on both surfaces and around the edges. The midvein is white and quite prominent towards the base.

[photo of sheath, ligule and node] The sheath is open with a distinct “V” at the front. The ligule (membrane where the leaf joins the sheath) is white and 2 to 6 mm long. Usually at the top of the sheath where it meets the ligule is a thick, pointed appendage (auricle) that is as long as or longer than the ligule. Nodes are covered in short, silky hairs giving them a whitish bloom. The culm (stem) is erect, hollow and hairless. Plants can create loose clumps from short, scaly rhizomes.

Fruit: Fruit type: seed without plume

[photo of mature spikelets] The branches become more erect as fruit develops, the awns twisting in the lower third. Seed is oval-elliptic, 2 to 3 mm long, smooth and golden. When mature, the entire spikelet falls off to spread the seed.


Indian Grass was one of the dominant grasses of prairies that once covered a large portion of Minnesota. It is a beautiful grass, the golden brown plumes wafting in the slightest breeze, and is widely available for the home garden as well as restoration projects.

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka taken in Anoka and Ramsey counties. Other photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: Diane Lindstrom - Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
on: 2019-09-02 08:23:04

Beautiful plant, I am going to plant seed in my yard along a fence line.

Posted by: Carly Austin-Kukowski - MN Marine Art Museum garden, Winona, MN
on: 2021-09-18 10:34:16

The garden of this place is beautifully done with native plants appropriate for the area. Meandering paths through the garden place you up close to all kinds of winged creatures. The dominant colors of the garden seem to change weekly, depending on weather and season.

Posted by: Andy - Minneapolis
on: 2022-09-23 07:48:41

Suddenly this Fall, there's one volunteer grass plant with noticeably different seed heads among the Big Bluestem that I planted two years ago. "Ask Extension" says it's Indian Grass--I sent them photos. It's amazing that this grass somehow arrived here in my yard and also managed to break through the Big Bluestem's cover (weeds don't even succeed in doing this). I'll harvest the seeds and plant it next Spring.

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