Purple Love Grass (Eragrostis spectabilis)

Purple Lovegrass, Purple Love Grass, Tumble Grass

Purple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) is a Native American wildflower grass that grows throughout the United States and Mexico. It looks as good in the garden as it does in naturalized areas, and is often used in wildflower meadows. Both the growing requirements for love grass and care of purple love grass are easy. Let’s learn more about adding ornamental love grass to the garden.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Eragrostis spectabilis, known as purple lovegrass, is a species of flowering plant in the family Poaceae, native from southern Canada to northeastern Mexico. It was first described by Frederick Traugott Pursh in 1813 as Poa spectabilis, and transferred to Eragrostis by Ernst von Steudel in 1840.

It is readily eaten by browsing and grazing animals.

Eragrostis spectabilis is an upright, tufted grass that grows from 30 to 70 cm tall. Its common name, purple love grass, comes from its inflorescence towards the top of the stem. They bloom in late summer to early fall, turn purple, and contain the seeds. As the plant continues to mature, the inflorescence will often break off, and its movement will disperse the seeds. These seeds are reddish-brown and tend to be 0.6-0.8 mm long. During the fall after seed dispersal, the plant’s stem and branches turn soft brown or tan in color.  The inflorescence of Eragrostis spectabilis exhibits a whorled branching structure, with three branches coming off the rachis at a time.

Eragrostis spectabilis is a perennial and goes dormant over the winter. It is a C4 grass and prefers sandy soil and disturbed areas such as sandy or gravelly roadsides, plains, and woodlands. Eragrostis spectabilis is also very drought-, salt- and cold-resistant, making it an excellent choice to introduce to roadsides, especially in colder areas with seasonal snowfall; once established, this plant needs little to no additional attention. It prefers full sun, but will tolerate part shade and likes damp to wet soil. It spreads through rhizomes, as well as through seed dispersal both by birds and by the movement of the panicle by the wind; seeds use physiological dormancy and are ready to germinate after a dormancy period of about ten weeks.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight and Temperatures

Like most members of the grass family, mostly full sun is necessary. Plant purple lovegrass in an area that gets 6 to 8 hours of full sun. Some afternoon shade is alright. Warm areas are best for this native grass, but freezing weather isn’t an issue.

Purple lovegrass can handle the intense Texas heat in late summer up to 120° Fahrenheit. It also handles lows in the single digits in winter. Its grass blades will die back then, but that’s no problem. The roots will be well-protected under the soil line, and the grass can remain as a wildlife habitat for ground-dwelling and foraging birds. Lovegrass has a wide hardiness zone range in North America, from zone 5 through 9. It does well outside this hardiness zone range too, but may be annual.

Water and Humidity

If you plant a stand of lovegrass, water it slowly and deeply a couple of times a week to help its roots establish themselves in the ground. After that, there’s no need for regular watering. Eragrostis spectabilis enjoys dry locations, like limestone glades and gravelly roadsides. Soil moisture isn’t a problem, either.

People often plant native grasses on flood plains to assist with erosion control. The short rhizomes of these native plants hold water under the ground with no issue. Similarly, humidity isn’t a problem. Those who have a garden in the salty humidity of the coast find these plants thrive there. While transplants and newly seeded plants will need some protection, established bunches of lovegrass can handle quite a beating.

Soil

Eragrostis spectabilis species has a wide tolerance for soil types. Sandy or gravelly soil is perfect for purple lovegrass. Sandy soil is great because well-drained soils are a must for this plant. But rich soil or clay soil that is well-drained is also an effective growing medium. If you must, amend the soil with agricultural sand (like glauconite greensand) or native sand to provide some drainage.

Fertilizing

Eragrostis spectabilis needs no fertilizer. In the wild, you’ll find it growing in sandy or gravelly soil, in upland savannas, and in the sandy soils of salty coasts. Purple plains lovegrass is a plant that thrives in conditions where disturbed and well-drained soil is readily available. Native plants in the grass family are very tough and save competition from invasives. They don’t have any problems thriving in rich meadows and poor soil conditions alike.

However, feeding this plant species with a high nitrogen fertilizer upon establishment will assist with new growth. To avoid burning the roots of the plant, dilute a full spectrum liquid fertilizer and feed the base of the plant in your garden. Fertilizing this way assists the plants in developing mostly basal leaves, but this feeds directly into flower development later in the summer season.

Planting Instructions

Pruning

While cutting these plants isn’t necessary, you can prune them to the ground in the garden in early fall through winter. This can assist plants in perennial borders by helping them maintain their softly mounding habit. Carry out this pruning process by hedge trimming or mowing the grass. Whatever you do, please do not cut them back in spring as they begin to grow new green leaves.

Though these native plants spread slowly in a garden, you can prune them during their bloom time to prevent too much spreading. Deadhead the lovely reddish purple clouds that bloom in late summer and add the airy cloud-like blooms to arrangements as cut flowers. Or simply cut the individual spikelets and dispose of them. 

Propagation

Because this plant spreads slowly, it may appreciate support in your garden. There are two ways to propagate these plants: by seed and by division. Simply let the grass flower and the seeds mature in your garden. They’ll drop seed to the ground and produce new foliage growth in early spring. You can also collect the heads and spread them yourself.  

Carefully separate the seed from each sheath, and discard the refuse. Alternatively, keep the seed sheath to remain among the separated seeds as a sedimentary material to prevent them from blowing away after broadcasting them. Then direct sow them in the garden, and spread them on the exposed earth in early fall. They require light and cold stratification for germination. 

Provide either some sand, vermiculite, or some form of sediment to keep them from blowing away in the wind. Water lightly for a couple of weeks, and as the warm season of spring approaches, you’ll have new plants. Divide the plants to grow elsewhere in the garden every winter while the plant is dormant. Dig around the base of the plant about 6 inches from the base of the foliage. 

Then unearth the entire grass clump with the root ball intact, and locate the rhizomes. Separate these and put the plugs in other parts of the garden with full sun and well-draining soil. Anywhere you want plumes of this plant’s reddish purple flower is appropriate. Water your transplants deeply and slowly for a couple of weeks while they get established. In spring, you should see mostly basal foliage growing.

Pests and Diseases

  • Common Pests

Aphids aren’t a huge issue for gardens of lovegrass, but look out for infestations of them. They may take away energy from the plant as they suck sap from the foliage. Because this plant is host to important wildlife and pollinator species, I can’t recommend the use of even organic pesticides. Instead, use applications of a strong stream of water from a hose to rip their mouth parts and prevent further feeding.

Spittlebugs are either green or black leafhopper-like insects that suck plant sap from the stems of lovegrass. Their feeding may result in premature browning of leaves in late summer. Most of the time, plants survive despite spittlebug feeding. To control them, spray them with water, and remove their spit-like egg masses from the stems of your lovegrass.

Yes, lovegrass is deer-resistant, but it’s not bird-resistant. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seeded native forbs and grasses in my yard, only to have birds eat the seeds before it has a chance to germinate. To keep your seed safe, provide a decoy feeder that’s always stocked, or cover your seeds with netting or garden straw

  • Common Diseases 

Leaf spot is a rare disease you may have to deal with when it comes to drought-tolerant lovegrass. Remove damaged leaves as they crop up, and keep airflow between plants by dividing the clumps regularly. Remove any discarded cut flowers from the base of the plant as well as other garden debris. Plant your lovegrass among resistant plants to prevent this disease. 

III. Uses and Benefits 

Purple love grass is a low-growing grass that is considered showy and suitable for planting in ornamental gardens. It is grown in late season landscapes and is valued for its color change to deep purple-pink at the end of the summer. Purple love grass is also planted at perennial garden borders, in meadows, and in open woodland gardens.

Eragrostis spectabilis is often used in attempts to reintroduce native species in disturbed areas, particularly in plains and hot, sandy areas, as it spreads readily via seeds and has a high dormancy rate (60%) that only increases after its dormancy period; the only problem is that it is not widely available for commercial use and can thus get expensive. Additionally, it is used as an erosion control plant, as its fibrous roots hold soil in place. It can also be used as a lawn alternative in areas with low foot traffic, as it only needs to be mowed a few times per growing season. The dried inflorescences are often used in dried flower arrangements.

Eragrostis spectabilis also attracts several species of birds and butterflies, as well as other pollinators. The seeds are used as a food source for small mammals, such as mice and songbirds, and tend to be high in nutrients. It is also used as a grazing plant both for livestock and wild animals such as deer, and deer also will dig up the basal part of the stem to use as a food source during winter. The plant itself is also often used as both nesting material and cover for smaller animals.

Purple Love Grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) Details

Common name Purple Lovegrass, Purple Love Grass, Tumble Grass
Botanical name Eragrostis spectabilis
Plant type Native Plant
Hardiness zone 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Growth rate Slow
Harvest time Fall
Height 0 ft. 8 in. - 1 ft. 2 in.
Width 0 ft. 8 in. - 1 ft. 2 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition Clay
Flower color Brown/Copper
Leaf color Green