Dig Deeper

Panicum

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Quick Look

Panicum may be our favorite genus. These North American native prairie grasses have more than good looks; they are also tough and functional. The flowers are produced in a well-developed panicle, typically terminal and often finely branched. Deep, fibrous root systems help them tolerate poor soil and drought, they need no fertilizer, and they’re low maintenance. They also provide food and cover for wildlife.

Panicum virgatum was one of the major grasses in the Tall Grass prairie of North America. It is the most common Panicum species found in the horticultural trade. Taller varieties make beautiful screens and backgrounds, while shorter cultivars create lovely sweeps of color and texture. Their beauty and habit make them a smart alternative to introduced grasses such as Miscanthus.

Commonly called Switchgrass, our North American Panicum and cultivars offer a winning combination.

Digging Deeper

With roughly 400 species, our best-known Panicum come from temperate regions. However, they are also is also found in tropical areas, such as the Hawaii native P. torridum.

P. virgatum was one of the major grasses in the Great Plains Tall Grass prairie of North America. It also occurs naturally on dry slopes, sand, open oak or pine woodlands, shores, river banks, and brackish marshes. It ranges primarily on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, from southern Canada through the United States to Mexico and into Central America. It is a very adaptable species, as demonstrated by its wide geographic range and presence in varied ecosystems.

The closely related P. amarum grows in the coastal dunes, wet sandy soils, and the margins of swamps. It ranges along the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico from Connecticut to northeastern Mexico. P. amarum has adapted to the harsh environment of dune systems, which are subject to salt spray, occasional inundation, high temperatures, and low soil moisture and fertility. It can manage very dry, sterile sites and will flourish on fertile, well drained soils.

P. miliaceum, an ancient grain crop known as millet, is responsible for feeding a large portion of the world population. And it is believed that the name, Panicum, comes from the Latin panis, meaning bread—perhaps because bread was made from millet.

Switchgrass was important to Native peoples in the Americas. They ground seeds to make flour, mixed roots with soapweed for washing hair, stuffed it into moccasins for padding, and made concoctions of the leaves for fevers. In the U.S. today, it’s used as a landscape plant, as livestock forage, and for biofuel.

Panicum in horticulture

The most popular Panicum species in horticulture, by far, is P. virgatum. It was popular in European gardens before it became well-known in its own backyard. Horticulturalist Hans Simon discovered burgundy-hued P. virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ and reintroduced it to the North American horticulture industry.

Many beautiful cultivars have been discovered since then, including ‘Heavy Metal’ (introduced by the late Kurt Bluemel), ‘Northwind’ (found by Roy Dublik in Wisconsin), and Ruby Ribbons® (hybridized by Dr. Mark Brand at University of Connecticut). Panicum amarum ‘Dewey Blue’, a gorgeous blue selection of a coastal Switchgrass species, was introduced by Rick Darke.

A new salt-tolerant Switchgrass has been discovered on Martha’s Vineyard. Named Panicum virgatum ‘Cape Breeze’, it is short, dense, and green. It shares the toughness and adaptability of other cultivars.

Panicum in the landscape

Switchgrasses are warm season plants. Growth often starts slowly at the beginning of the season. However, once soil and air temperatures climb, they experience a strong flush and grow vigorously through the remainder of the season. They need full sun for optimal growth and flowering and to remain upright.

Switchgrass needs very little maintenance (just a yearly cutting back in spring), which is one reason why massed plantings on highways work so well. In warmer climates, it can be planted most any time the soil is not frozen, although it establishes most successfully when planted in spring or early fall. In cooler climates, spring or summer is the best time to plant.

In natural settings, Switchgrass benefits from burning prior to spring growth. Controlled burns every 3-to-5 years decrease weed competition, eliminate excessive residue, and stimulate growth.

Switchgrasses are prized for their ability to help restore damaged soil, reduce soil erosion, and create beautiful landscapes despite extreme climate conditions.

Perennial Plant of the Year™

Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ took the spotlight as the 2014 Plant of the Year™ awarded by the Perennial Plant Association©. Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennial Farm introduced ‘Northwind’ in the early 1990s. It came from seed he collected in 1982 near railroad tracks off of Highway 25 in South Elgin, Illinois. As the seedlings grew, Roy noticed an unusual one with beautiful, blue-green leaves that was growing upright rather than arching. It has since become a favorite in the trade and has graced many landscapes.

Roy says this about his find: “I think the habit of this plant with its distinct upright growth habit, its durable lifestyle, and appreciated architectural essence has helped it find a welcomed place in many gardens. This is one of uncountable naturally occurring hybrids that occur with all native plants…we just need to keep our eyes open.”

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