Published on 06/12/02

Ornamental Grasses Have Much to Offer

Today, ornamental grasses are a popular, diverse group of plants. One nursery in Florida lists more than 60 cultivars in its catalog.

Most people know pampas grass, a South American import that's a mainstay in the nursery industry. However, its large size and coarse texture may be overpowering in small spaces.

Dwarf pampas grass is a popular alternative. It grows 4 to 5 feet tall and has narrower leaves and a finer texture than its full-size cousin.

In late summer, creamy white, silky flowers (up to 24 inches long) emerge on strong spikes above the foliage. It makes a dramatic statement just when the rest of the landscape is in a lull.

Variegated Forms

Nurserymen also have introduced variegated forms of pampas grass, such as Silver Comet and Sun Stripe, which have creamy white leaf margins, and Gold Band, with a yellow-gold band along its margins.

Miscanthus is one of the most popular groups of ornamental grasses on the market today. More than 20 cultivars can be found in the trade with foliage that's plain green, variegated or banded with golden yellow bars along each leaf.

Many have a finer leaf texture than pampas grass and aren't quite as bold and domineering in the landscape. One of the popular variegated cultivars is Morning Light, with white-edged variegation giving it a silvery look.

Variegated Japanese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Variegatus') is one of the oldest and most widely available cultivars. It's a knockout when used adjacent to plants with dark foliage, such as pigmy crimson barberry or burgundy loropetalum.

Zebra Grass

Zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus') conjures up thoughts of the Serengeti Plain in Tanzania with its gold bands along each leaf. It makes a bold statement in the landscape, reaching up to 7 feet by late summer. It's best used as a background plant.

Porcupine grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Strictus') has similar foliage, but grows more upright and erect than zebra grass, making it a better choice for small spaces.

Switch grass (Panicum virgatum) is a native American prairie grass becoming increasingly popular in the landscape trade, thanks to the introduction of new cultivars such as Heavy Metal and Prairie Sky. They have powder-blue foliage with silvery gray flowers on loose, open stalks in late summer. On the UGA campus, switch grass is used on banks and areas that are hard to mow.

Fountain Grasses

Fountain grasses (Pennisetum spp.), with their foxtail flowers that appear to cascade above the foliage like sprays from a fountain, are among the most ornamental of all the ornamental grasses.

Some are annuals and some are perennials. You need to know which you're buying so you won't be disappointed if they don't come back the following year.

Crimson fountain grass (Pennisetum macrostachyum) has burgundy foliage and flowers. It's a popular bedding plant. Not reliably hardy throughout most of the state, it's grown as an annual bedding plant.

On the other hand, oriental fountain grass (Pennisetum orientale) is cold-hardy. It's also one of the most striking of all the fountain grasses, with glossy, green foliage and silky, violet-pink, foxtail-like flowers.

Many Uses

The list of ornamental grasses is extensive and the foliage colors and plant forms diverse. Use them:

  • In groups of three, five or seven as foundation plants or in perennial borders.
  • On slopes and other hard-to-mow areas.
  • In patio pots and as nonshedding poolside plants.
  • To screen utility boxes or other unsightly features.
For more information on ornamental grasses, contact your county extension agent or visit this Web site:

Gary Wade is a Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.