Between familiar, utilitarian lawn grasses, and big, bold bamboos, there is an extensive range of remarkably diverse and distinctive ornamental grasses and grass-like perennials. Some are not much larger than lawn grasses. Others are as big and coarse as bamboo. They are appreciated for their textures, colors and even the way they move in the breeze.
Blue fescue forms relatively small clumps less than a foot tall and wide. Some of the sedges are not much larger. Conversely, pampas grass gets taller and wider than 10 feet. Giant reed, which is often mistaken for a bamboo, develops substantially leafy canes that can get more than 20 feet tall!
Most grasses and grass like perennials form fountain-like clumps of arching foliage. Some are more upright than others. Most clumping fescues have rather rigid foliage that radiates upward and outward, without arching downward very much. Others, like hair grass, are low and softly mounding. Papyrus, which is not really a grass, has unusual tufts of at the ends of its upright leaves.
Despite the innately subdued flower colors of most grasses and grass like perennials, foliage may be interestingly colorful. Blue fescue is of course metallic grayish blue. As the name likewise implies, red fountain grass is bronzy red. Some pampas grass varieties have foliage that is variegated with yellow or white. Various sedges are colored or striped with bluish green, bronze, yellow or white.
Some grasses actually have interesting flowers
Grasses and similar perennials, more than any other group of plants, can add motion to the garden as they get blown by even slight breezes. The bigger and more softly textured types are most effective, and are particularly appealing as contrast to formally shorn hedges and rigid shrubbery that lack motion. Smaller types that do not move as much can still contribute their informal and unrefined style. Because their freestyle form is such an asset, grasses and similar perennials should be given plenty of space out of the way. They are not nearly as appealing if they need to be shorn.
Like all perennials, clumping grasses live for more than one year, but are not necessarily permanent. Fountain grass dies back in the winter and regenerates in spring, but only for two or three years. Green fountain grass can reseed and replace itself during that time; but red fountain grass does not. Giant reed seems to regenerate indefinitely and is actually a very problematic weed in many riparian environments.
Grass of the Week: pampas grass
This particular clump of pampas grass happens to be the old fashioned Cortaderia jubata that has given pampas grass a bad name by naturalizing and becoming one of the most noxious weeds throughout coastal areas. It can be distinguished by its tall, pinkish tan flower plumes that stand high above its relatively low foliage. I am not at all pleased about seeing it in my neighborhood, even though it is an otherwise rather appealing ornamental grass.
The various modern varieties of pampas grass, Cortaderia selloana, that can still be found in nurseries are not as aggressive, but regardless, should not be planted in rural landscapes where they can escape into the wild. They should be limited to urban landscapes where their potentially self sown seedlings can be controlled. Also, because their long, narrow, strap shaped leaves have very finely serrate margins that can cause really nasty paper cuts, pampas grass should be planted out of the way.
Mature pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) can be taller and wider than 10 feet. The billowy white or pale pink flower plumes are about two or three feet long and stand only a few feet above the foliage in late summer. Dwarf varieties have denser foliage that may stay as low as three feet, with six-foot tall flower plumes. Some have variegated foliage.
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