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Found in Europe, Northern Asia, and Central and North America, the genus Calamagrostis includes roughly 250 species. They grow in a range of habitats, such as low-density forests, fields, and the edges of lakes and streams. Many individual species withstand a wide range of conditions, from wet to average and sun to shade. Calamagrostis holds one of the most widely used and valued ornamental grasses, C. x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’.


Calamagrostis comes from the Greek kalamsos (reed) and agrostis (a kind of grass), hence the common name “reed grass.”

Other grasses share the common name of “reed” grass. For example, Arundo donax is called Giant Reed and is used for making reeds in musical instruments, Phalaris arundinacea, known as Reed Canary Grass, is a marsh plant that spreads by rhizomes. Grasses within Calamagrostis are sometimes referred to as “small reed.”

The most famous member of Calamagrostis is C. x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’. When it was discovered in the Hamburg Botanical Garden in the 1930s, this lovely grass was believed to be a variation of C. epigejos (C. epigejos ‘Hortorum’).

German plantsman Karl Foerster (1874-1970) was not convinced. His studies concluded it was a naturally occurring hybrid of C. epigejos and C. arundinacea. For a short time it was known as C. x acutiflora ‘Stricta’. However, because Latinized cultivar names are considered unacceptable in botanic nomenclature, it was rechristened C. x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’.

Introduced to the U.S. in 1964, ‘Karl Foerster’ is now one of the most popular grasses in the nursery trade. It is the first grass to receive the Perennial Plant of the Year Award™ (2001), which awards plants for their good looks, long-lasting beauty, and undemanding growing requirements.

From ‘Karl Foerster’ came colorful variations, such as white-green variegated C. x acutiflora ‘Avalanche’ and ‘Overdam’, and the gold-green variegated ‘Eldorado’.

Karl Foerster’s legacy lives on in the Foerster Stauden Perennial Garden in Potsdam, Germany. These grounds have been awarded landmark status and act as a memorial to this gifted horticulturalist.

Karl Foerster in his garden on September 28, 1967.<p></p> Photo by Erich Braun, scanned from negative [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]
Karl Foerster in his garden on September 28, 1967.

Photo by Erich Braun, scanned from negative [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

Another Beautiful Calamagrostis

Winner of the Award of Garden Merit of the Royal Horticultural Society in 2006, Calamagrostis brachytricha is one of the few grasses that can tolerate some shade. It forms lovely clumps of green foliage, which are graced with airy pink-tinged flowers. Under preferred conditions, these blooms are numerous and highly ornamental. Blooms arrive mid-late summer and persist into fall. Unlike ‘Karl’, C. brachytricha is a warm season grass.

Native Calamagrostis

Of the approximately twelve Calamagrostis species native to North America, Canada Bluejoint (C. canadensis) is the most widespread. It’s found from the subarctic lands of Alaska and Quebec throughout most of the U.S. It stops short of the southernmost states.

It’s a versatile plant. According to the U.S. Forest Service, Canada Bluejoint occurs as an understory plant in riparian and cool, moist forest communities. It helps provide stream bank stability, and it recovers rapidly after oil spills. This adaptability makes C. canadensis a noteworthy candidate for green infrastructure projects: bioswales, bioretention, rain gardens, and meadow and prairie plantings. It’s a long-lived, sod-forming grass and is drought tolerant once established.

Genus Debate

Calamagrostis, Agrostis, and Deyeuxia share many characteristics, and the differences among them are often subtle. This makes classifying species into these genera difficult. When hybrids occur naturally, the task is even harder. Additional study and extensive DNA testing are needed to shed more light on the subject. We’ll be on the lookout to see what happens.

Illustrations of <i>Agrostis vulgaris</i>, <i>Deyeuxia recta</i>, and <i>Calamagrostis</i> x <i>acutiflora</i>. Images from www.plantillustrations.org.
Illustrations of Agrostis vulgaris, Deyeuxia recta, and Calamagrostis x acutiflora. Images from www.plantillustrations.org.

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