Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ornamental Grasses

Well this is a wide open topic...because there are literally thousands  of various grasses. In the South many people consider St. Augustine grass as an ornamental grass and while it is a member of the Poaceae is not what we are talking about. We need to consider St. Augustine as a turf grass and we are talking about "ornamental" and not a turf grass. So let us look at just a few ornamental grasses, these are excellent additions to the landscape....but should never be the main constituent of your landscape, just one of the components. Many of these grasses will survive from zones 4 through 8, be careful of the pennisetums that can be a little touchy with cold weather.  So here we go.............

Muhlenbergia capillaris
A knee high purple haze in the distance may not be an atmospheric event, but the effect created by the wispy, purplish flower heads in a dense stand of Gulf muhlygrass. This is a showy clump forming grass that can get to 3 ft (0.9 m) tall and just as wide. The stems and leaves are wirelike and unbranched, originating from a dense basal clump. (Muhlygrass does not produce runners.) The purplish-red or pink inflorescence is a diffuse, silky panicle, 18 in (45.7 cm) long and 10 in (25.4 cm) wide, that stands above the wiry leaves. It appears in late summer, and persists for 6-8 weeks. The ripe seeds that follow give an attractive tan color to the wispy plumes.Gulf muhlygrass is used in borders and perennial gardens where a fine textured foliage is desired to accent bolder specimens. It makes an excellent groundcover for areas with poor soils, or a refined specimen grass in natural gardens. Gulf muhlygrass is tolerant of salt spray and poor soils. Once established, it needs no care. Muhlygrass is recommended for road shoulders and medians.

Pennisetum alopecuroides

The genus Pennisetum gives us several ornamental fountain grasses. This one is the most commonly cultivated of the cold hardy species. Chinese pennisetum is a perennial grass that grows in a slowly expanding clump, 2-4 ft (0.6-1.2 m) tall and just as wide. It has narrow, linear leaves that are flat, 12-20 in (30.5-50.8 cm) long, less than 0.5 in (1.3 cm) wide, and slightly scabrous. The arching mound of bright green foliage turns golden brown in winter. The flower spikelets are borne in bristly yellowish to purplish cylinders to 8 in (20.3 cm) long. They resemble bottle brushes, and are at their peak in summer and begin to disintegrate by early winter. Many cultivars are available, with clumps ranging from less than 1 ft (0.3 m) to over 5ft (1.5 m) tall. 'Hameln' is small, with clumps less than 3 ft (0.9 m) tall, and produces creamy white flower clusters. 'Little Bunny' is only about a foot tall. 'Little Honey' is also only about 1 ft (0.3 m) tall and has white striped leaves. 'Moudry' has wider leaves and dark purple, almost black, foxtail flowers; it self-sows and can be invasive in adjacent flower beds and lawns. 'Paul's Giant' get 5 ft (1.5 m) tall and has light tan flowers.

Miscanthus sinensis

Miscanthus sinensis is the premier ornamental grass - a garden favorite for centuries. There are literally hundreds of cultivars, differing in blade size, shape and color pattern; plant height and texture; summer, autumn and winter foliage colors; flower timing and color; and cold hardiness. What they have in common are a clump forming habit (never forming turf), in which the leaves grow up then cascade out and down like a fountain; foliage that turns various shades of gold or bronze in autumn and holds up well throughout the winter; erect flowers that shine in the summer sun, then turn soft and fluffy in winter, and persist beautifully in dried arrangements; and a preference for sunny positions in the landscape. The wild form is a large bunch grass, to 12 ft (3.7 m) tall and 5 ft (1.5 m) wide, with leaf blades almost 1 in (2.5 cm) across. The leaves are medium green with a prominent white midrib, and dry to straw yellow in winter. The dense inflorescence, produced in late summer, is reddish purple, aging to silvery. Just a few of the better known cultivars are listed here.

Maiden grass (M. sinensis 'Gracillimus') is an old time garden favorite with delicate, fine textured foliage and a graceful, rounded form. The clumps of foliage can get up to 4 (1.2 m) tall, and the flowering stalks can reach 7 ft (2.1 m). Established specimens may flop under their own weight and should be divided every few years. Maiden grass has very narrow leaf blades that are about a 0.25 in (0.6 cm) across and are green with a white midrib stripe down the center.

Maiden grass blooms with silky tassels of coppery-red flowers in mid-autumn - later than most cultivars, and in areas with short growing seasons, it may not bloom at all. In winter the leaves turn warm golden yellow and the flowers turn cool silvery white.

Porcupine grass (cv. 'Strictus') is another classic ornamental grass sometimes listed as M. sinensis var. strictus. This one has a rigid, upright habit and stiff, pointed leaf blades some of which stick out at angles like porcupine quills. The leaves are patterned crossways with yellow bands, producing an effect like dappled sunlight. It gets up to 8 ft (2.4 m) tall with a spread of 3-4 ft (0.9-1.2 m). Porcupine grass is more tolerant of wet soils than other cultivars and is often planted next to ponds or pools. Porcupine grass is similar to zebra grass (cv. 'Zebrinus') which also has yellow banded leaves, but is more floppy and arching instead of stiffly upright.

'Variegatus' has been popular with gardeners for over one hundred years!

Cultivar 'Variegatus' is another antique that still adorns some 18th century landscapes. This is a large grass, to 8 ft (2.4 m) tall and spreading fountain-like to 5 ft (1.5 m) across. It is prone to flop and collapse under its own weight, and should be given support. The leaves are pale green with distinctive creamy white stripes and the plant produces a very pronounced and strange white effect in the landscape. The ghostly color seems to brighten other plants nearby. 'Variegatus' blooms with reddish pink flower spikes in early autumn. This one is a little more shade-tolerant than most, but of course shade makes it reach for the light and more likely to flop over.

(Plant information taken in part from Floridata....Thank You Very Much)

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