Emerald Coast Growers marketing manager John Friel says ornamental grasses are no longer a niche crop but an accepted presence, part of the perennial mainstream. Whether they serve as a stand-alone specimen or in mixed containers, grasses are getting lots of new play.
Friel also believes that while durable, native varieties are in vogue, tender varieties are also serving a purpose. “One of the most popular grasses out there is P. xadvena ‘Rubrum,’” he says. “It’s not hardy, but it’s so pretty, which makes up for it. Its more recent offspring, ‘Fireworks,’ is a show-stopper.”
‘Fireworks’ is the first variegated purple fountain grass with mid-veins of burgundy with hot pink margins. In addition to ‘Fireworks,’ panicum ‘Ruby Ribbons’ is another variety Friel and Emerald Coast Growers are excited about. ‘Ruby Ribbons’ has soft blue-green foliage in the spring that takes on a wine-red color in early summer, which intensifies as the season progresses.
Consumers want garden reliability, says Jelitto’s Allen Bush. And a perennial or ornamental grass becomes truly noteworthy only after it survives a few seasons. “Time is precious and there are increasing competing demands for leisure dollars,” he says. “We are focusing more on perennial and ornamental grass introductions that look good on the bench and in the garden over time.”
For 2010, Jelitto’s newest ornamental grass introduction is Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Pixie Fountain.’ This species grows in humus-rich, moist soils and even in bogs, over much of the cooler regions of north temperate portions of Europe, Asia and North America.
‘Pixie Fountain’ is lower-growing with darker semi-evergreen green foliage and slightly wider upright leaves. The lovely cloud-like airy blooms appear in June on sturdy stems, opening a bright light green and maturing to golden tan by fall. Bush says deschampsia ‘Pixie Fountain’ is one of the easiest of all grasses to maintain and needs only a single annual cutting-back late each winter.
John Hoffman, founder and owner of Hoffman Nursery, is starting to see the use of native and ornamental grasses as a lawn alternative. “This country has grown up on green lawns. Americans love green lawns, but people are looking at functionality these days,” Hoffman says. “People don’t want to use as much water. They don’t want to maintain as much as they used to.
There’s plant material out there that can lessen all of that, he says–like Carex pensylvanica or Mosquito grass. “The kids aren’t going to play football and soccer on it, but then again this is something that doesn’t have to be mowed except once a year and it looks very nice and lush and green.”
Hoffman says the growing awareness of ornamental grasses can be attributed to commercial applications, institutions and public gardens.
Along with Carex morrowii ‘Ice Ballet’ and Carex appalachica, Panicum virgatum ‘Cheyenne Sky’ is stirring up quite a buzz at Hoffman Nursery. ‘Cheyenne Sky’ has blue-green spring foliage that turns wine-red in early to mid-summer and deepens to burgundy tones in late summer and fall. Hoffman Nursery is one of only two current propagators of ‘Cheyenne Sky’ in the country,