Ornamental Grass: Beyond Calamagrostis

Spokane Photographer Alan Tower www.alantowerphoto.com clump of Panicum in bloom.

Panicum is about 5′ tall with a very airy bloom. Shown here as fall begins to turn the foliage. It remains well upright in winter.

Spokane Photographer Alan Tower Photo of Denver Botanic Gardens Calamagrostis and container. www.alantowerphoto.com

Calamagrostis deserves its fame, but there are other grasses of merit as well. Here we give some options for ornamental grass.

Looking at the urban landscape in Spokane one might think that Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ is the only ornamental grass that thrives in our city.  It’s a lovely plant, and sometimes just the plant for the job, but it is not the only one out there.  We carry many grasses of differing habits and it is possible (listen to me Landscape Architects) to do a perfectly fine commercial building or home without a single feather reed grass.  Let’s find some alternatives and enjoy the diversity.

There are ornamental grasses that are low growing and grasses that are tall.  Most Carex are short, such as the Tower introduction, ‘Beatlemania’.  The name refers to the fact this is a mop headed sedge and it is great under a Japanese maple, bordering a pathway, or similar locations where a large grass won’t work.

Other worthy smaller grasses include Japanese blood grass,  Bowles Golden grass, Bouteloua ‘Blonde Ambition’ and oat grasses such as ‘River Mist’ .  Carex muskingumensis has a fine texture and looks super in sun or shade.  And the most famous of the small grasses is Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa).  Like ‘Karl Foerster’ this grass was named a Perennial Plant of the Year.

The taller alternatives include the many varieties of Miscanthus as well as Panicum and less frequently seen Erianthus and Sporobilis.  Erianthus ravennae is a good alternate for a Z5 garden if you want the look of pampas grass.  It is not as massive, but it has impressively tall blooms (over 10′ on mature plant).  Looking for massive?  Try Miscanthus giganteus for a truly large clump that towers in the garden.  It does not run but it will get to be 8′ or so in diameter.

Close up of variegation in Miscanthus 'Strictus'. Ornamental grass. www.alantowerphoto.com Spokane Photographer Alan Tower

Miscanthus s. ‘Strictus’ is a tall, upright clump to 6 ‘ or more with distinctive cross banded variegation shown here in detail.

This little article is just an overview, and won’t give specifics on all the grasses, but it can serve as a template for alternatives to the overuse of Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’.  Calamagrostis is a lovely grass and I use it myself in some designs, but it is not the only one on the list.  Ones I think generally should be considered for off the list are the fescues and Helictotrichon (blue oat).  They just rarely look spectacular. I’d much rather spend a little extra time and money and plant the annual purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) and get the big show it provides.

Erianthus ravennae in bloom in large clump. Spokane photographer Alan Tower www.alantowerphoto.com

Erianthus ravennae is a very tall grass with big plumes and works as a cold climate substitute for pampas grass.

www.alantowerphoto.com Spokane Photographer Alan Tower

Though it is an annual, Purple Fountain Grass is well worth planting for the foliage as well as the bloom.

Close up of Blonde Ambition ornamental grass. www.alantowerphoto.com Spokane Photographer Alan Tower

‘Blonde Ambition’ has thousands of little blooms like flags making a delicate display that waves in the wind.


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