Plant of the Month – October, 2007

At a glance
Latin Name: Pennisetum orientale ‘Fairy Tales’
Common Name: Oriental or Chinese Fountain Grass
Family: Poaceae/Gramineae (Grass Family)
Origin: Central and SW Asia
Plant Type: Perennial grass
Flowers: 6″ creamy spikes that turn to bronze
Foliage: medium green arching mounds
Mature height: 2-3 ft.
Hardiness: Zones 6-10
Soil: well drained
Exposure: full sun or light shade
Water usage: medium
Sources: mail order or local nursery

If you are reading this sentence, then you already have my respect. Lots of Texas gardeners immediately tune out and turn off the moment you mention planting grasses in their landscape. They want flowers—preferably big, bright, showy ones! I say all things in moderation, and all of those super showy flowers need some background foliage to be showcased against.

One of my new favorite grasses is Pennisetum orientale ‘Fairy Tales.’ It is a dwarf form of the species and is ideally suited for today’s smaller landscapes. It forms arching mounds of foliage that reach 18 inches. The flowers stand an additional 18 inches above the foliage. This heat-loving and drought-tolerant grass relishes our hot summers and is constantly graced with 4- to 6-inch flower spikes. It’s a prolific bloomer for a grass and quite showy, especially if sited where you can view it backlit by the sun—it absolutely glows in the late evening sun. The flower spikes begin to appear in early summer and persist through winter, so you can enjoy them even after the rest of your garden has gone dormant.

Grasses are more versatile in the garden than most gardeners assume. Fairy Tales is a wonderful addition to perennial borders and in containers. In the landscape, this plant truly excels when planted in large drifts like you would use a shrub. I also like the upright habit this grass gives to containers. I often use it as “thriller” in the classic 3-part container combo recipe (thriller, spiller and filler).

Something that grasses add to the landscape that I think most people overlook is movement. What other perennials or flowers sway and move in the slightest breeze? Grasses are never static; they are always in motion in our windy climate.

All Oriental fountain grasses are easy to grow as long as you give them well-drained soil. I know this isn’t an easy task in certain parts of the state, but it really is the first and most important step to having a successful garden in Texas . This is a hardy fountain grass that will come back reliably in spring at least to Zone 6. I recommend not cutting the plants back until between mid-February and early March. I like the dried foliage in the winter garden, anyway.

Want something larger? Try P. orientale ‘Tall Tales’. It gets to 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide, with even larger plumes. Just remember, if I ever tour your garden and you have some swathes of grasses planted, then you immediately get extra points! I think they are the mark of an “elite” gardener!

About the author: Jimmy Turner is the Director of Horticulture Research at the Dallas Arboretum, visit for more information on his trials. For more plant profiles by Jimmy, subscribe to Neil Sperry’s GARDENS Magazine.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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