Seasonal color from ornamental grasses

When you ask gardeners around here why they plant ornamental grasses, fall color isn’t usually one of the reasons given. I’m no different. I love ornamental grasses, too, and given the space, I would be happy to have a garden with nothing but rocks and grasses—including bamboos, which are really just giant grasses. But fall color isn’t something I typically associate with ornamental grasses.

After taking a closer look at what’s happening in our garden right now, I’m about to reconsider. In the last week, we’ve transitioned from fall to winter; quite abruptly, actually. Our chaste tree in the back yard lost all of its leaves in a matter of days, covering the small patio outside the dining room. Hand-sized leaves from our neighbor’s sycamore tree are piling up in our planting beds in the front yard. And our deciduous grasses have turned from green to shades of yellow and brown.

In years past, I never paid much attention to the different hues grasses go through as they go dormant, but they are quite distinct—and surprisingly beautiful.

101208_bloodgrass lemongrass
Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica 'Red Baron) in the pot in the foreground; lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) in the background. Lemongrass is evergreen in our area unless we experience lower than usual temperatures (below 28°F or so), in which case it gets top-killed. Both of these grasses get about a half a day of sun in our yard.
Korean feather reed grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha), a relative of the ever-popular Calamagrostis acutiflora 'Karl Foerster’. The bamboo in the red pot is Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’, a running bamboo with green-and-yellow culms that would be too invasive to plant in the ground in our small yard.
Variegated Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Albostriata'), one of my favorite ornamental grasses of all. In our climate, it needs shade and regular irrigation to thrive. This one has green leaves with white striping but there are quite a few other cultivars as well. When they turn yellow in the fall, the variegation is all but invisible. 

This is a non-variegated greenish-yellow variety of Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’), turning butterscotch yellow. Hakonechloa macra is a slow but steady grower for us. This one was planted two years ago as a small 2.5” plug.
Miscanthus sinensis is native to China, Korea and Japan. Its common names include maiden grass, Chinese silver grass, and eulalia grass. We have several cultivars, including this one, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Super Stripe’. I planted it last year from a 4-inch pot and it’s really upsized this year. I was pleasantly surprised to see the interesting shades of yellow and brown as it’s going dormant.
101208_Miscanthus sinensis Dixieland
A variegated Miscanthus sinensis cultivar called ‘Dixieland’, growing inside the fence in our front yard. At 4 ft., it’s smaller than many other maiden grasses.
This is Miscanthus sinensis ‘Rigoletto’ in the planting strip outside the fence in the front yard. Even now it has a commanding presence.
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberpfeil’ is the largest maiden grass we have, growing on the south side of the house next to the sidewalk. The plant alone was a good 5 ft. tall this year; the flower panicles added another couple of feet. The stalks got so heavy this summer that they started to lean and we had to tie up the entire plant. I will have to take some divisions in the spring to reduce the size of the clump.

In my experience, miscanthus needs at least 5-6 hours of direct sun a day in order to thrive and to flower. We used to have a couple of ‘Gracillimus’ in the back yard where they only got a couple of hours of direct sun, and they were floppy and rather wretched-looking. I dug them up and gave them to a friend who planted them in a sunny spot; there they’ve been doing very well.


  1. I love the shades "browns" you get with different grasses (and oranges, reds, and yellows too).
    Isn't Miscanthus sinensis considered to be an invasive in California? I know it is in some warmer parts of the country.

  2. Alan, according to it's not considered invasive anywhere in the Midwest or West.

    Check out this interesting article: All the cultivars we have are on the "Okay to buy" list.

    The author goes to say that "moisture and heat are the key things required for spread; not a problem in California".

    Whew :-)

  3. Interesting. I have an "antique variety": 'Gracillimus', and although it's on that site's "OK to buy" list, it has produced a few seedlings in my yard every year. I've actually let two of these seedlings mature, and they formed pretty inferior plants -- I'll be removing at least one of the two in the spring.
    I remember seeing what I'm pretty sure were Miscanthus plants on a wild hillside in the Los Angeles area as I was driving by. Maybe they were planted there.

  4. Alan, I haven't seen any seedlings from our miscanthus yet. Maybe the variegated varieties (which is all we have) are sterile?

    Trying to find an answer, I came across another interesting article:

    Are Ornamental Forms or Cultivars of Miscanthus Invasive?

    * Older cultivars, such as ‘Zebrinus’ and ‘Variegatus,’ with striped or banded foliage, have no record of self-seeding or invasion. Any form with white in the foliage is not as vigorous and will be less aggressive than an all-green plant.
    * All documentation of invasiveness, naturalization, and self-seeding to date, which can be very confusing, concerns the SPECIES, NOT THE CULTIVARS.
    * Miscanthus is self-incompatible; this means one individual plant, grown in isolation, without another species or cultivar, cannot usually develop seed. Self-seeded, individual plants of the species, which have invaded natural areas, are each a unique individual genotype, so two of these plants easily set seed.

  5. When you ask gardeners around here why they plant ornamental grasses, the response is usually "I don't."

    As one of the far out gardeners that does use ornamental grasses in my state, I can say with a certainty that fall and winter are the big payoff seasons up here. Stipa tenuissima is one of may favorites for winter, it turns a tawny color and seems to shed snow. It still waves around (in a container) in late winter. Not much else is happening at that time, so it's definitely a star.

    Christine in Alaska, with grasses


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