Phoenix Perennials and Specialty Plants

From the E-Newsletter: September 2005

Glorious Grasses: Miscanthus and Pennisetum

Many gardeners find it hard to incorporate grasses into their borders and, indeed, I agree that it is at first difficult to find good planting combinations or the perfect grass for a certain location. But when you find that perfect grass or that great combination, grasses can add magical texture, colour and movement to the garden. For instance, our Yellow Border is filled with lots of gorgeous, bright colour but it is the Miscanthus sinensis topping off at around 7 feet right in the centre of the border which is the dynamic focal point that first draws your eye to the border. On closer examination of the bed you'll see another favourite grass, Stipa tenuissima or Mexican Feather Grass, which reaches about 1.5 feet in height and which looks great with a whipcord Hebe and lady's mantle.

Fall is a great season for grasses. The genera Miscanthus and Pennisetum are particularly nice and offer numerous species and cultivars that are excellent in the garden. Here is a little tour of some very garden-worthy grasses that hail from these two genera.

Maiden Grasses (Miscanthus)

Originating in China and Japan, this generally very tall grass likes good soil, plenty of moisture and a situation in full sun. It will grow in a drier soil but not so lushly or so tall. As far as we know it is not otherwise fussy as to soil and is generally trouble free

The clumps increase in size moderately quickly and can then be divided and replanted. This is generally best done in the early spring but they also establish well if broken up in June or July. It is necessary to keep them well watered until they are fully re-established. Avoid dividing them in the autumn.

The flowers, in the form of panicles of narrow silken tassels, appear in the autumn, generally August to October. The grass will attain its full flowering height within two to three years after planting.

Miscanthus sinensis varieties are deciduous or rather, for that implies to me that they drop their leaves, the leaves and flowering stems die and turn straw coloured. Many forms will continue to look good in this state over the winter ('Gracillimus' is particularly decorative at this stage) and can be cut down in the early spring.

The genus Miscanthus, and in particular the species sinensis, has been the subject of much breeding work, especially in Germany from which have arisen numerous cultivars with strange germanic names. My favourite name so far is Blutenwunder or Blooming Wonder. It's also quite a good cultivar. There are now so many cultivars that it's really quite hard to keep track.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Rotsilber' - This miscanthus has narrow leaves with a white midrib. The flowers are particulary nice - they are shiny and red and are likely where the name 'Red-Silver' comes from. The flowers emerge close to the foliage in fall which itself turns a nice orange-red colour. 6+ feet.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light' - 'Morning Light’ is a stunning fine-leaved miscanthus that definitely does look particularly good shot through with morning light! It is the fine texture of this grass plus the variegated midrib that allows it to catch the light and shimmer in the breeze. Reddish flowers emerge late and flower about 1 foot above the foliage. 'Morning Light' has a wonderful form and shape and would be beautiful in almost every garden! 4-5 feet.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus' - This is an old time favorite Maiden Grass is also sporting narrow slender foliage but with excellent copper-coloured flowers which cover the big clump in September and change colour to silver for the winter months. Fall foliage color is a dramatic reddish orange and is very impressive. 6 feet

Miscanthus sinensis 'Little Zebra' - This dwarf mutation was found on a clump of Miscanthus sinensis. M. 'Little Zebra' makes a tidy compact mound of green foliage with prominent horizontal yellow banding that holds well through the summer. In late summer, the attractive plumes emerge wine-purple...a very good addition to smaller gardens. 4 feet

The Fountain Grasses (Pennisetum)

The most well-known pennisetum is without a doubt purple fountain grass -- the gorgeous burgundy-foliaged and darkly-plumed annual grass that is sure to disappoint everyone who first discovers it when they find out that it will not last the winter. However, this fountain grass has numerous perennial cousins that are great in the garden.

The name of the genus is inspired by the soft inflorescences. In Latin penna and seta taken together means feather-bristle. This lovely grass is a favourite, distinguished by arching, feathery bottlebrush flowers spilling over a cascading mound of foliage.

Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Hameln' - This is one of the most popular cultivars with an upright, dome-shaped mound that plays host to the plump, slightly curved and creamy green flower heads that arch at least a foot aloft. 1-3 feet

Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Moudry' - Black Fountain Grass - This distinct fountain grass has dark brown to black bottlebrush inflorescences. 2 feet

Pennisetum 'Little Bunny' - This is a dwarf fountain grass with cute little white bottlebrushes like a bunny tail. Good for small gardens.

Pennisetum 'Karley Rose' - 'Karley Rose' is an exciting newer cultivar with pink inflorscences that look particularly smashing once your clump has bulked up or when planted in larger groups.

There are also other options for this time of year including sedges and other grasses. The sedges Carex flagellifera, C. buchanii, C. caryophyllea 'The Beatles' and C. 'Frosty Curls' all provide excellent fountain like forms on plants from six inches to 1.5 feet in height. Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) at 1-1.5 feet is gorgeous swaying in the wind. Pampas grasses (Cortaderia selloana) such as 'Ivory Feathers' and the dwarf 'Pumila' are dramatic and architectural. No matter your garden situation there are excellent grasses that would look stunning in your fall garden, particularly with companion plants such as sedums, asters, and rudbeckias.

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