As ornamental grasses continue their remarkable growth trajectory, and the palette of plants expands along with their popularity, growers are faced with the challenge: Which ones do I pick for my program? Conventional wisdom suggests a well-curated, integrated mix of classic standbys and nouveau contemporary choices. But with available grasses now numbering well into the thousands, especially when you take into account natives, nativars (a cultivar of a native species) and bred varieties, the choices become less obvious. But fear not! Here we’ve identified a well-blended selection of favorites and finds, making it easy for you to build the collection that best Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ suits your business and your buyers.
Bread and Butter Beauties
First, some bread-and-butter standards to which all other grasses are compared. These are tried and true, well-used and well-loved, proven garden staples. Versatile, durable and beautiful, they’re repeat winners for a reason.
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’
This is the lady of the garden, elegant, graceful and an absolute must-have! Commonly known as maiden grass, ‘Gracillimus’ is one of the oldest and perhaps the most widely known of the Miscanthus varieties. It is desired for its finely narrow foliage and gracefully round form. A clump-forming grass, ‘Gracillimus’ has an attractive arching shape that may make it seem much larger. Striking copper-red blooms appear in mid- to late fall and are great for attracting butterflies to the garden.
‘Gracillimus’ is the best Miscanthus for hot summer areas — excellent for garden, landscape, screening or at waters’ edge. Considered drought-tolerant and deer-resistant when mature, it grows to 4 to 7 feet tall with a spread of 3 to 6 feet and prefers well-draining soil in full sun to bright shade. Hardy in zones 5 to 10.
Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’
One of the best fountain grasses for mass plantings, Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ blooms heavily and uniformly, giving it a versatility that lends itself to many uses. The granddaddy of dwarf fountain grasses, it’s the oldest P. alopecuroides cultivar available. Slightly smaller than most P. alopecuroides at 20 to 30 inches tall and 18 to 30 inches wide, ‘Hameln’ fits perfectly where the straight species and other grasses would be too tall or large, and it blooms easier than the species, making it a great selection for short growing season areas. From July through September, greenish-white seed heads appear and transform to creamy tan with maturity. Deer-resistant and drought-tolerant once established, ‘Hameln’ is one of the best dwarf fountain grasses for mass plantings, borders and grown in containers. Hardy in zones 4 to 9.
Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’
Architectural and early blooming, Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ more than earns its status as a staple of the garden — and 2001 Perennial Plant of the Year. (Only three grasses have ever been chosen for the honor.) Slender, upright, deep-green, lustrous foliage comes in early spring with a wheat-like appearance that lasts all the way to winter. Versatile, attractive and care-free, ‘Karl Foerster’ is great for creating a backdrop, hedge or screen effect. Birds love this feather reed grass, which is also deer-resistant and drought-tolerant once established. It grows 3 to 4 feet tall, 18 to 24 inches wide and in areas where it receives a winter chill, produces beautiful purplish-green, feathery plumes to 6 feet. Hardy in zones 4 to 10.
Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’
Perhaps the best-known ornamental fescue, ‘Elijah Blue’ is a brilliant blue outstanding performer that stays evergreen in most areas. Silvery-blue foliage forms a small, dense mound of spiky tufts, with flower spikes reaching a foot above the foliage in May and June. ‘Elijah Blue’ pairs wonderfully with other silvers, the deepest greens and even purples! It reaches just 6 to 10 inches wide and 8 to 12 inches high at maturity, 20 to 24 inches with flower spikes. Great for borders and edges. Heat and drought-tolerant, plus deer-resistant. Hardy in zones 4 to 8.
Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’
A stately native and one of only three grasses honored as Perennial Plant of the Year, Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ is a very strong, upright grower with wide, steel-blue foliage and striking orange-yellow fall color. Its seed heads add even more interest — hazy red, open panicles for extra movement. This upright switch grass is the most vertical available, with a stiffly upright habit. Wonderful in mass plantings and cutting gardens, ‘Northwind’ reaches 4 to 7 feet tall and 24 to 30 inches wide. Hardy in zones 2 to 10.
New and Nouveau
Now on to the newest novelties to grace our greenhouses — fabulous finds perhaps destined to be the next staples? Time will tell and growers like you will decide, but in the meantime here are some of the latest varieties to get the industry buzzing.
Andropogon gerardii ‘Blackhawks’ PPAF
Some call it the hipster of grasses — part of an up-and-coming genus growing by leaps and bounds, Andropogon ‘Blackhawks’ possesses the ideal appeal of being not only native but also highly ornamental. It features new, bright green blades and stems that quickly turn rich purple for a striking blended bicolor display. Foliage height reaches 18 to 24 inches but the height in flower tops out at a stately 5 to 7 feet. Hardy in zones 4 to 9.
Calamagrostis ×acutiflora Hello Spring!™
This cool season grass with stunning, bright white variegation is a fresh Calamagrostis for any program. Available exclusively from Emerald Coast Growers, Hello Spring! offers a cheery greeting with its beautiful variegated form; crisp, uniform green and white striping; and refined habit. Hello Spring! reaches a height of 3 to 4 feet and is hardy in zones 4 to 10.
Festuca ‘Cool as Ice’
An exciting update to an increasingly popular group of small ornamental grasses, Festuca ‘Cool as Ice’ boasts an unbelievably bright, silver- blue color and thrives in hot climates! Blue fescues are in demand for border and container alike. Selected by Brent Horvath, ‘Cool as Ice’ is slightly taller and more vigorous than other blue forms. Sporting a small, tight habit, it reaches 12 to 18 inches high in flower. Hardy in zones 4 to 8.
Panicum Hot Rod
This gorgeous hardy grass revs up into the red zone earlier than other switch grasses. Firmly upright blades emerge in blues, greens and reds, reddening rapidly until the whole plant is a rich, deep maroon. Tan flower heads emerge from late summer to early fall. Try in masses, as a stand-alone or in gardens and containers. ‘Hot Rod’ prefers full sun, spreads to 24 inches and reaches approximately 36 to 40 inches tall. It is hardy in zones 4 to 10.
Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Ginger Love’
Easily recognizable with its stunning proliferation of dark red-purple bottle brush plumes, ‘Ginger Love’ appeals with the ideal combination of color and a refined habit of green mounding foliage. This gorgeous fountain grass waves red inflorescences from August into October. ‘Ginger Love’ reaches 2 to 3 feet tall and prefers full to part sun. Hardy in zones 6 to 9.