A recent survey tells us which grasses are best-sellers – and which could benefit from a little marketing boost.

Feather reedgrass (Calamagrostis acutiflora) easily ranked as the bestselling grass in a recent survey. Seen here is the cultivar ‘Karl Foerster’, named Perennial Plant of the Year in 2001 by the Perennial Plant Association.

In the most recent Census of Horticultural Specialties, which includes data from 2009 and was released in December 2010, ornamental grasses are reported with total sales – including retail and wholesale – of $124,261,000. The year 2003 was the first for the census to collect ornamental grass sales separately; that year sales were $61,213,000. Not a bad growth spurt for a group of low-maintenance plants.

But sales could be higher, so in early 2011, I conducted an online survey of growers and retailers to:

  • determine what the best-selling grass and sedges were;
  • identify grass research priorities; and
  • determine what growers and retailers felt were the limiting factors in selling more grasses and sedges.

A 10-question, online Zoomerang survey was announced through the American Nurseryman “Sprout” e-newsletter; the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association’s member e-news; and specific e-mails to grass growers and retailers. A total of 37 growers or retailers responded to the survey. Although this is a small number of responses, there exist few, if any, previous surveys on grasses.

Best-selling grass

Not surprisingly, feather reedgrass (Calamagrostis acutiflora) was cited as the best-selling grass, followed by maiden grass (Miscanthus spp.) and fountain grass (Pennisetum spp.) Feather reedgrass is easy to propagate; a dense, bunch grass; sets no seed – so seedlings and invasiveness are not issues – and people love the look of it. It’s stiff, but sways with the breeze, and its 4 to 5-foot height works well in many settings. The cultivar ‘Karl Foerster’ was named Perennial of the Year in 2001 by the Perennial Plant Association (PPA), the first grass to be given the honor.

Despite self-seeding and invasiveness, miscanthus and pennisetum, two other non-native grasses, are favorites with the public. Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra), the PPA Perennial of the Year for 2009, was listed by two respondents. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and Wright’s dropseed (Sporobolus wrightii; also called giant sacaton) were the only U.S. native grasses listed as best-sellers. Really, Sporobolus wrightii I would never have guessed! Another unusual best-seller submitted was Festuca subverticillata (nodding fescue). See Table 1 for specific responses.

Best-selling sedge

Carex ‘Ice Dance’ and Carex ‘Evergold’ topped the best-selling sedge list, each with four responses or 11 percent; however, eight people (22 percent) responded that they do not sell sedges. (See Table 2 for specific responses). A variety of reasons were given for not selling sedges: too hot and dry here; sedges only grow in shade; cannot find any to spread well in sun; and so on.

While attending the Internationale Stauden Union perennial plant conference in Germany in 1998, I asked growers what their best-selling grass was. They all answered: “Sedges, especially the smaller ones, used for groundcovers.” Are we missing potential sales in sedges? Hundreds of sedges are native to the U.S., many of which are species that vary widely from California to Maine to Florida.

What limits grass sales?

Question three of the survey asked participants what was their biggest problem or limiting factor in selling more grasses and sedges. The open-ended question allowed for any responses, which are compiled in Table 3. Although cultural needs of the grasses can be problematic (such as, need to be cut back annually; poor appearance in early spring for store sales, and so on), more people felt education was the limiting factor for increased sales. The general public does not appreciate or understand grasses and how to use them in the landscape. Business factors were cited by 16 percent, and three respondents felt invasiveness issues were limiting grass sales.

Research Priorities

Twenty-four percent of the respondents to the survey felt hardiness should be a research priority. Sterility and plant evaluations were each cited by seven respondents, or 19 percent. Six people cited specific cultural issues for research, and four others listed new varieties or new plants to be of primary importance. Answers to the open-ended question – What research should be conducted concerning grasses? – are listed in Table 4.

When asked to rate four specific research topics, respondents ranked sterility, cold hardiness, and developing new grasses or sedges the highest, with 57 to 61 percent citing these as the best, most important projects. The fourth project, conducting regional grass trials, ranked lower, with 40 percent ranking this as the best research topic.

Several respondents commented on the need for more grasses that are not invasive. Other comments requested more information on natives and better native cultivars, with good color and no lodging.

Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra) garnered two votes in the survey of best-selling ornamental grasses

What did we learn?

Based on the results of this survey, ornamental grass sales could benefit from increased public education on how to use grasses. The industry may also benefit from information on sedges, since many retailers or growers do not appear to be selling these plants, even though they are very popular in Europe. The challenges of overcoming how grasses look in early spring may be overcome through the use of improved tags and marketing aids. Grouping grasses in combinations with attractive perennials could also help to educate customers and increase sales.

All grasses, but especially native grasses, are tough, low-maintenance plants that grow well with minimal inputs. It appears that where and how to use grasses in a conventional landscape and garden are not well known or understood by the public. It also appears that gardeners would benefit from being shown how to incorporate grasses into traditional landscapes, and still maintain acceptable, neat and attractive gardens. Display plantings at garden centers and in prominent public locations are additional ways of showcasing grasses.

Research priorities of developing sterile, new grasses ranked high with the industry, along with cold hardiness information, followed by regional trials. Native grasses, especially cultivars with colorful foliage and good form, were cited as being very desirable for new introductions.

Mary Hockenberry Meyer is professor and extension horticulturist at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul. She has conducted extensive research on ornamental grasses and developed the web site http://miscanthus.cfans.umn.edu/, titled “Miscanthus: Ornamental and Invasive Grass.” She also authored the book Ornamental Grasses for Cold Climates. Meyer can be reached at meyer023@umn.edu.