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Pennisetum

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<i>Pennisetum orientale</i> 'Karley Rose'
Pennisetum orientale 'Karley Rose'

Quick Look

Members of the genus Pennisetum are exquisite grasses with a timeless style. Most grow in flowing, fountain shapes, and many produce lovely, bottlebrush plumes. Others impress with colorful foliage. Tender selections, often red-leaved or variegated, enhance decorative containers and annual color beds. Hardy fountain grasses look spectacular in sweeping masses or specimens.

Pennisetum are native to Africa, Asia, and other tropical, subtropical, and temperate environments worldwide. They thrive in sun, heat, and humidity, and they require little maintenance. If planting in fall, plant at least a month before first frost. They need well-drained soils in winter for best survivability.

Digging Deeper

Pennisetum species are native to Africa and Asia as well as other tropical, subtropical, and temperate environments worldwide. The genus contains roughly 80 species and is part of the family of true grasses, Poaceae.

Pennisetum comes from the Latin penna, feather, and seta. These are biological terms derived from the Latin word for “bristle,” and refer to their hair-like inflorescences, commonly called bottlebrush plumes.

These bristly seed heads produce abundant seeds. Most cause no reseeding concerns; however, P. alopecuroides ‘Moudry’ is a fairly heavy seeder and will produce offspring not true to type. Be sure to pluck unwanted seedlings from the landscape.

Bottlebrush inflorescence of <i>Pennisetum alopecuroides</i> 'Piglet'.
Bottlebrush inflorescence of Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Piglet'.
<i>Pennisetum</i> 'Sky Rocket', a tender selection that brightens up color beds and containers.
Pennisetum 'Sky Rocket', a tender selection that brightens up color beds and containers.

Tender and Hardy Pennisetum

It is helpful to think of Pennisetum available in the nursery world as either hardy or tender. Many of the variegated- or purple-foliaged Pennisetum are tender in all but the southernmost states. These vigorous, quick-growing varieties are typically treated as annuals for containers and color beds. Their foliage and plumes pack a colorful wallop from early summer to frost.

However, many lovely Pennisetum are cold hardy to Zones 5 and 6. Like the tender varieties, they add beauty to beds and decorative containers, and can be used as annuals outside of their hardiness zones.

Our Fountain Grass Quick Guide shows both hardy and tender varieties. Find your hardiness zone on the USDA Hardiness Zone Map to discover which fountain grasses will work as annuals or perennials for you.

Landscape Power

Pennisetum achieves a classic ornamental look in a variety of heights and bloom colors. Many grow in a fountain shape, giving rise one of its common names, Fountain Grass. The hardy Pennisetum create beautiful sweeping masses, and shine as specimens. Both hardy and tender varieties provide texture and interest in mixed containers.

The ornamental Pennisetum available for landscape use range from one foot (P. alopecuroides ‘Little Bunny’) to five feet (P. alopecuroides ‘Fox Trot’). Bottlebrush plumes can be a diminutive 1” or a dramatic 8”, cream colored, pink, or burgundy.

All add atmosphere and ambiance as they sway with the slightest breeze. One of our most popular ornamental grasses for many years remains P. alopecuroides ‘Hameln’.

<i>Pennisetum alopecuroides</i> 'Red Head' mingles with other perennials in this mixed planting.
Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Red Head' mingles with other perennials in this mixed planting.

Continental Snapshot

On the African continent, the leaves of several Pennisetum species are woven into baskets and sieves, or are used as fodder for animals. Pearl Millet (P. glaucum) has fed populations in Africa and India for thousands of years. P. purpureum, Napier Grass, is also called Elephant Grass—apparently elephants love to eat it.

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