Splendor in the Grasses

In this busy horticultural world of crazy colors and sexy cultivar names, few classes of plants have cultivated true and lasting gardener love affairs like grasses. No, not those “shower me with irrigation and mow me twice a week” turfgrasses. I’m talking about those graceful, willowy wonders that not only turn heads, but transform landscapes into gardens.

Twenty years ago, most folks only saw one kind of ornamental grass, the ever-popular pampas grass. (Or “campus grass,” as I once overheard an overzealous docent proudly proclaim.) To be sure, pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) is a magnificent botanical wonder with heavenly plumes, but at 8 to 11 feet tall and wide, it’s simply too large for most gardens. Today, the 6-by-6-foot trim and tidy tamed version, dwarf pampas grass (C. selloana ‘Nana’), can find a home in many landscapes.

Truth is that Texas has been a little slow to bring the beauty of ornamental grasses to mainstream horticulture, but the last few years of harsh environmental conditions, water restrictions, and developments of new varieties have rocketed grasses from native plant backyards to cutting edge designs on corporate campuses. And no wonder – ornamental grasses offer easy care, seasonal change, stunning beauty and few to no disease and insect problems.

The king of garden-worthy ornamental grasses is Chinese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis). While the straight species is a bit large for most gardens (7 to 9 feet tall), horticulturists have developed from it a number of absolutely stunning cultivated varieties, all of which perform well in Texas. Maidengrass (M. sinensis ‘Gracillimus’) forms a lovely, full, four-foot-tall spray of very fine-textured, v-grooved foliage. The strong, tight, upright form is reason enough to make it a garden favorite, but the real show comes from the dozens of long-threaded inflorescences that sumptuously curl into stardust sprays, creating an absolutely delightful floral display.

Two other miscanthus grasses worth particular note are ‘Adagio’ and ‘Morning Light.’ Both are compact varieties, forming dense clumps to about three feet tall and wide. ‘Adagio’ features silvery, cascading foliage and fluffy inflorescences. ‘Morning Light’ has narrow foliage that has a thin white stripe down each side and lovely reddish plumes in the fall.

Muhly grasses have long been a favorite of ornamental grass connoisseurs, and many of them are native to Texas. The largest is Lindheimer’s muhly (Muhlenbergia lindheimeriana), a native, thin-bladed, blue-green beauty that forms a five-foot-tall fountain of arching leaves topped with a crown of silver-cream flower spikes extending up another 12 to 18 inches. This beauty is also versatile, perfectly suited for creating a soft backdrop to a perennial bed, an informal hedge between garden rooms, or a stunning single specimen.

Gulf muhly (M. capillaris) is a personal favorite of mine, particularly the cultivar ‘Regal Mist.’ I can’t resist the perfect three-foot sphere of shiny green leaves, and that heavenly halo of fuzzy flowers that envelop the whole plant is a fog of rich pink that, when backlit by the setting sun, rivals even the best storm cloud sunset the high deserts can produce.

Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) is a curiously rigid upright grass that provides a formality to the garden that no other ornamental grass can match. I’ve even seen it grown very successfully as an avant garde hedge at the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa. Attaining a five-foot-tall and three-foot-wide stature, it flowers earlier than most ornamental grasses, producing loose pink blooms in June that gradually age to a wheat straw color in autumn and hold together through the winter.

All of the above grasses need plenty of sun (minimum six hours a day) to perform well, but there is a great ornamental grass that performs very well in dappled to heavy shade: inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). Lovely light green leaves add cheer and brightness to darker locations, and the dangling chevron seed clusters hang on through spring, creating exceptional winter interest. This 30-inch plant is the perfect mate to pair with Hinkley’s columbine (Aquilegia hinkleyana), as each is at its peak when the other is resting. Inland sea oats will seed freely in cultivation, so be prepared to do a little “pickin’ and grinnin'” to keep it in bounds.

Ornamental grasses are superb choices for today’s Texas gardeners. They provide dramatic shapes to the garden and are natural foils for perennials of any color. Make them an essential part of your splendiferous garden this year.

About the author: Steven L. Chamblee is the Chief Horticulturist for Chandor Gardens in Weatherford. A contributing editor and regular contributor to GARDENS magazine, Steven gratefully acknowledges Rick Darke and Ken Steigman for teaching him to love and appreciate ornamental grasses.

For more of Steven’s recommendations, see the May/June issue of Neil Sperry’s GARDENS Magazine. Click here to subscribe. Back issues are also available.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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