Ripening wood oat spikelets sparkle in the early autumn sunshine. Click to download a large version (800x600) of this image.
Indian wood oats looks a little like a small version of sea oats (Uniola paniculata), to which it is closely related - they used to be listed in the same genus. This is a perennial clump-forming grass with wide leaves and lovely nodding clusters of flat, oatlike seedheads. It gets 2-5 ft (0.6-1.5 m) tall and a single clump can spread two or more feet across on its short, stout rhizomes. The leaves are about 1 in (2.5 cm) wide and 5-8 in (12.7-20.3 cm) long. They are flat and terminate in a sharp point. The flowers are held in flat clusters called spikelets, 1-2 in (2.5-5.1 cm) long and 0.5 in (1.3 cm) wide. The spikelets hang gracefully on thread-like pedicels in loose, open panicles on a stem that nods above the leaves. Leaves and flowerheads turn a rich tan in autumn and reddish-bronze by winter. All in all, a very attractive grass!
Wood oats like this one, grown in the sun, are shorter, denser and more compact than those grown in partial shade.
Indian wood oats is native to southeastern North America from New Jersey and Pennsylvania west to Kansas and south to central Texas and northern Florida. It grows in rich woods, along streams and rivers, and in flood plains. It often is common in the ground cover of bottomland forests, sometimes forming small colonies. It does not grow near the sea at all.
Indian wood oats is easy to grow. It does best in moist soil with full sun, but it does pretty darn well in dry soil with partial shade. Cut old foliage to the ground in spring before new growth begins. For mass plantings, set plants 2 ft (0.6 m) apart. The clumps expand slowly and are not at all aggressive. In fact, the clumps should be divided every few years as their vigor diminishes.
Light: Full sun or partial shade. Indian wood oats grows more upright and not as tall in full sun. Moisture: Indian wood oats likes a moist, but not waterlogged soil. It survives okay in drier soils, but clumps will not increase much, and it will not self-sow. Established plants are actually quite drought tolerant. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 9. Propagation: Divide clumps of Indian wood oats in spring. Plant seeds any time. In moist soils, wood oats will self-sow and can even become a little invasive.
Fresh or dried, the beautiful seed heads of wood oats are perfect for arrangements, here paired with bristlegrass (Setaria geniculata).
Use Indian wood oats as a ground cover in shady areas, in the open woodland garden, or as a specimen grass in a perennial border or under a large tree. They do well in shade, but even better in full sun. The dried flowerheads are highly prized for arrangements, and they last indefinitely.
In winter the leaves and persistent seed heads turn to bronze. They sway in the breeze and are especially attractive when dusted with a light snow. There are a half dozen species of Chasmanthium in the eastern U.S. and northern Mexico; all are pretty similar, but latifolium is the only one typically found in cultivation.