According to the Experts: Grasses That Deserve More Attention
We interviewed colleagues about grasses and sedges they believe are underused. To find out what works in different areas, we talked with a range of people. We also asked these experts why the plants they selected deserve more attention.
Stephanie Cohen taught horticulture at Temple University for many years and now gardens and consults. Known as "The Perennial Diva," she has written several books, including The Nonstop Garden, co-authored with Jennifer Benner.
- Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’—Perhaps it hasn’t gotten the applause it deserves because the rest [of the Pennisetum] are shorter or taller. To me this is a perfect color and size.
- Nassella tenuissima—Even though it’s a lowly annual for me, Nassella tenissima is perfectly wonderful in pots where a fine textured grass is an advantage…I love when the wind blows through it.
- Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’—Even though there are tons of newer selections, which mean older varieties get overlooked, this is my personal favorite. I am growing this in a border and in my meadow…I compare all other Panicums to this one.
Bob Henrickson is the Horticulture Program Coordinator with the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum in Lincoln, Nebraska. He coordinates the GreatPlants® for the Great Plains program and is responsible for acquiring, propagating, and producing plants (primarily natives) for distribution to members.
- Native Carex and Juncus species—provide a variety of benefits that are perfect for stormwater management plantings… native sedges come in a wide variety of forms and sizes for wet or dry soils, sun or shade. In Nebraska, we’ve identified more than a dozen native species that are worth incorporating in landscapes. There seems to be a Carex for any garden situation!
- Carex muskingumensis—If there is one sedge that deserves to be planted in every garden, it’s palm sedge.
- Carex eburnea—This plant was made for dry shade and because of its fine texture, combines well with just about any broad-leaved shade plant. It also makes an ideal groundcover as a lawn alternative or an accent plant for rock gardens.
- Carex plantaginea—This is another native woodland sedge that deserves to be planted more. What I like about this sedge is the broad, shiny leaves, crinkled like ribbon or seersucker.
Paul Cappiello is Executive Director of Yew Dell Gardens near Louisville, Kentucky. He has been evaluating and writing about Carex for many years. Here, he picks a few standouts.
- Carex siderostica ‘Variegata’—We planted this sedge [under a 60-year-old Fagus grandifolia] as 2.5” plugs at 18” spacing, and it was mostly filled in after two growing seasons—a complete, solid mass after three. Since that time, the mass has spread at a reasonable rate and we’ve been able to control spread easily where that was desired.
- Carex morrowii var. temnolepis ‘Silk Tassel’—If it’s texture you’re all about, ‘Silk Tassel’ is tough to beat. Twelve-inch-tall, fountain-like masses of the finest foliage make this an excellent counterpoint to Hosta, Ligularia, and other bold-foliaged shade plants.
- Carex appalachica—It works well in sun or shade and can take a fair amount of drought once established. It makes an excellent choice for a limited area lawn (though it doesn’t take foot traffic very well) or as a low green foil for taller, bold-foliaged plants. This sedge is not a spreader and plays well with others in the garden.
Chuck Hinkle is Garden Supervisor at the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College. He is trained in horticulture and has a particular interest in sedges.
- Carex flacca ‘Blue Zinger’—At the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College, we use it in a bed that is by a road. In winter, snow (and salt) gets plowed into this area. It is deciduous, but keeps a presence in the landscape.
- Carex pensylvanica—Pennsylvania Sedge makes a wonderful lawn alternative where there isn’t heavy foot traffic.
- Carex plantaginea—We use this plant in a garden that emphasizes texture. The coarse-textured sedge is planted as a mass groundcover next to an area of fine-textured Liriope.
- Juncus tenuis—Need I mention that this is one tough, tolerant plant? Sun or shade, dry, poor, compacted soil—this plant is useful for those areas where nothing else will grow.
Jesse Turner is a landscape architect and North Carolina native. He practices in central North Carolina and teaches landscape architecture at North Carolina State University. His specialties include designing for public spaces, design of children and family environments, and use of native and adapted plants.
- Carex pensylvanica—This Southeastern native has great potential because it can provide similar qualities designers seek when they specify lawns or masses of Liriope groundcover.
- Acorus calamus—Sweet Flag is not a new plant, but it is also not one that immediately comes to mind for designers…it is tough, hardy—perfect for wetlands and aquatic shelves where establishment is difficult due to intermittent moisture conditions.
- Sorghastrum nutans—Indian Grass is simply beautiful in flower. Its seed heads stand above its foliage by up to 24” in late summer and makes a beautiful display (particularly at sunset). It works well in hot and dry conditions but can also tolerate wet periods. As an admirer of nature and native plants in the Southeast, this is one of my favorites. It’s even a little romantic.
- Acorus gramineus ‘Minimus Aureus’—I have a soft spot for this plant. It’s little, cute, and bright yellow-green. It does not grow fast or provide the grand show that some of the other plants on the list here do, but it could be spectacular in the right place. This is the kind of plant that you don’t get to use often, but you should know about it because it just might be the perfect choice.
- Sporobolus heterolepis—Prairie Dropseed is a perfect choice for fall color, soft texture, and reliability. It performs magnificently when used in combination with Indian Grass, Little Bluestem, and a few flowering perennials in a meadow or field.
John Hoffman, President of Hoffman Nursery, has been passionate about ornamental and native grasses for over 30 years. We asked John which grasses he’d like to see more people using in the landscape.
- Andropogon ternarius—Striking fall color and shiny white blooms.
- Spodiopogon sibiricus—A graceful, bamboo look, and great fall color.
- Stipa gigantea—Very impressive blooms with intricate, arching seed heads.
Please note we grow most, but not all, of the plants mentioned here. For information about custom growing unlisted selections and other uncommon grasses, contact the Hoffman Nursery Sales Team.