Ornamental grasses are like universal guests. They enhance any gathering because they can be stars on their own, yet make everything else around them more vividly interesting.
"Ornamental grasses are beautiful mixed in a perennial border, are good in pots, and some make great specimen plants," says Monika Burwell, owner of Earthly Pursuits, a perennial and garden design company in Windsor Mill.
Tall and graceful, or squat and spreading, they also whisper romantically, in even the gentlest breeze. To top it all off, most are drought resistant and very low maintenance. Introduced to U.S. gardeners about 35 years ago by internationally known Towson-based landscape designer Wolfgang Oehme, and Kurt Bluemel, owner of Kurt Bluemel Inc. in Baldwin, ornamental grasses have become a garden mainstay. And with 10,000 varieties to choose from, they offer a Neiman Marcus selection of styles. But, of course, there's a fly in the ointment. We're learning that some ornamental grasses are potentially invasive here in Maryland.
"Some people are irate because they haven't been warned," says Ellen Nibali, horticulture consultant with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension.
Non-native phragmites are taking over shorelines while some early blooming varieties of Miscanthus sinensis [Japanese silver grass] have self-seeded in ditches and farm fields, as have some Pennisetums.
"Pennisetum 'Moudry' is beautiful but very invasive," says Burwell. "I've learned [by experience] that it will attack your lawn."
Fortunately, there are tons of alternatives to the few known beautiful boors. Like native Panic Grass (Panicum virgatum), also known as Switch Grass.
"They come in a real variety of colors and shapes," says Dale Hendricks, owner of wholesale North Creek Nurseries Inc. in Landenberg, Pa.
Powder-blue Panicum virgatum 'Cloud Nine' grows 6 to 8 feet tall, while bushier sky-blue P. 'Prairie Sky' gets half as big, and narrower P. 'Heavy Metal' has beautiful frosted lavender blue foliage that grows sentinel-upright to 5 feet tall. There are also red-foliaged Panicums, including P. 'Rotstrahlbusch', which turns burning-bush russet in fall, P. 'Shenandoah,' which is red all year round, but dials up the color in autumn, and paler P. 'Squaw,' which has lovely pink inflorescences (plumey seedheads).
"And Panicum 'Warrior' is out of the world," says Burwell. "Its fall color is spectacular."
Additionally, Panic grasses boast lovely fall-through-winter inflorescenses, which range from spear-like to airy cascades that look like clusters of golden raindrops. Another good choice is Eragrostis, also called 'Love grass,' a willowy, gracefully arching native that has fine-textured blue or green foliage, and ranges in height from a foot to 5 feet. It grows well on hillsides and in autumn sports pink blooms. Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) 'Sioux Blue' has lovely bright blue foliage, grows to 6 feet tall and sends up feathery inflorescences that turn bronze and burnt orange in winter. Rangy, sky-blue Andropogon gerardii, 'Big Bluestem,' another native grass, is very drought resistant and turns burgundy tinted with yellow and orange in fall.
"Andropogon, which makes a great accent, is more for sophisticated tastes," says Hendricks. "It's not so finished looking, is more wild and wispy. And it self sows, but without being obnoxious."
Carexes, which are shorter, bushier shade-lovers, often look like mop-topped Dr. Seuss characters. They are great in the middle or front of the border and in containers, come in a wide range of colors and prefer shade. Carex 'Catlin' is an evergreen ground cover, C. elata 'Aurea' is 2 feet tall with golden variegated foliage, and 'Flagellifera' is a 2 1/2 -foot orange fountain. And Quaking Grass (Briza media) grows 2 to 3 feet high in sun or part shade and produces delicate white flowers in late May.
"It's the baby's breath of the grasses and looks so pretty next to the dark purple-blue of Salvia 'May Night,'" Burwell says.
Research on potential invasiveness continues. Meanwhile, what's a conscientious gardener to do? First, check the current watch lists for potential invasiveness or call your local University of Maryland Cooperative Extension office. The Maryland Native Plant Society Web site (www.mdflora.org) lists plants to avoid, complete with photos. Second, ask questions of garden centers before you buy. Some consider a plant's invasive potential; for others, it's not on the radar. But the more gardeners ask, the more aware everyone becomes of the problem and the better-informed our choices.
Generally, grasses prefer full sun, though some, such as most Carexes, tolerate or prefer shade. Most need clear-cutting in early spring. Mature plantings may need spring division, especially if the center is dead. Except in sandy soil and extreme drought, established ornamental grasses rarely need fertilization or irrigation.
Earthly Pursuits Inc.
2901 Kuntz Road
Windsor Mill, MD 21244
Kurt Bluemel Inc. Nurseries
2740 Greene Lane
Baldwin, MD 21013
Andre Viette Farm & Nursery
Route 1, Box 16
Fishersville, VA 22939
Limerock Ornamental Grasses
R.D. 1, Box 111-C
Port Matilda, PA 16870