Bad Boys of Ornamental Grasses

Many ornamental grasses are graceful garden ornaments, and then there are others that you'll wish you'd never planted.

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Miscanthus 'Purpurascens' — photo by Rick Darke

"Good" versions of Miscanthus and Pennisetum

  • Miscanthus 'Purpurascens'. In this Miscanthus, the flower heads aren't the only draw. In fall the foliage turns red-orange. Blooms early but rarely self-sows.

    USDA Zone 4.

  • Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light' in early October

  • Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light'. A beautiful grass whose white margins on its very narrow leaves give it a creamy-pale green from a distance. Blooms late and doesn't tend to self-sow, although it may do so moderately in moist parts of the Southeast. Six feet tall.

    USDA Zone 5.

  • Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus' in early October

  • Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus'. A graceful, dense upright-arching grass that flowers late (late September in Tennessee). Seven feet tall.

    USDA Zone 5.

  • Miscanthus sinensis 'Hinjo'. If you love the gold-banded blades of 'Zebrinus' but hate its annual flop (the entire clump splaying out in every direction beginning in mid-August), try 'Hinjo', which never falls. In 'Hinjo' the bands are closer together, so the variation is more pronounced. Six feet tall.

    USDA Zone 5.

  • Miscanthus sinensis 'Little Zebra'. A very dwarf, fine-leafed form of the giant 'Zebrinus'. This little baby tops out at 18 to 24 inches or so, not counting the flower panicles. A perfectly behaved specimen grass for a small garden.

    USDA Zone 5.

  • Miscanthus sinensis 'Cabaret' — photo by Rick Darke

  • Miscanthus sinensis 'Cabaret'. A showy grass whose creamy-white-centered leaf blades are slightly more than an inch wide.The seed is sterile, so self-sowing isn't a problem. Blooms in late September. Nine feet tall.

    USDA Zone 6.

  • 'Karley Rose' fountain grass — photo by Rick Darke

  • Pennisetum orientale 'Karley Rose'. This hardy species blooms from late June to October and rarely self-sows. In 'Karley Rose' the numerous flower panicles are pinkish. Three to four feet tall.

    USDA Zone 6.

  • Pennisetum 'Burgundy Giant'. A tender fountain grass, 'Burgundy Giant' doesn't tolerate temperatures below 40 degrees so in cooler areas, it's treated as an annual. Blooms from July to September. Seed is usually not viable. Grows quickly to six feet tall in one season.

    USDA Zone 10.

  • Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum' — photo by Rick Darke

  • Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum'. Treated as an annual in much of the country because of its tenderness, this burgundy-hued fountain grass has proved itself in landscapes both residential and commercial. Footlong panicles appear in late summer. Rarely sets seed. Five feet tall.

    USDA Zone 9.

  • Scoping Out a New Grass

    Miscanthus may be a problematic plant in some areas, but selective cultivars are stellar. Here's how to make sure the Miscanthus that you add to your landscape will be a joy, not a hassle:

  • Look for at least one of these characteristics: late-flowering types, those that are known to not self-sow and/or those whose seed is sterile.
  • Avoid planting the species but choose a reputable cultivar of that species. Select from those listed here or search for more in Rick Darke's book, Pocket Guide to Ornamental Grasses.
  • Ask your local extension agent for recommended varieties.
  • If you live in an area that's conducive to Miscanthus spreading, avoid planting more than two cultivars. Research shows that cross-pollination could mean that any progeny could revert to species.

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