Designing with Colored Ornamental Grasses
A selection of colored ornamental grasses and grass-like plants
You can get year round color from planting ornamental foliage in your garden. Interesting shapes, textures and colors from leaves can add décor that remains the backbone of a good garden design as flowers and berries come and go with passing seasons. Some colorful ornamental grasses and grass-like plants do go dormant in the winter, but their decorative foliage lasts much longer than most flowers.
One note of warning: some ornamental grasses have become invasive in different parts of the country. Check you local agriculture advisers to learn which one’s are not eco-friendly in your area before planting them. Here is a list of some of the more colorful ornamental grasses and grass-like plants that you can use for foliage. This list is pretty safe for at least the Southern California area.
- Calimagrostis – This is a large-growing ornamental grass that can turn wonderful colors in the autumn.
- Carix – These grasses come in a wide range of colorful foliage and interesting shapes. You can find carix in oranges, yellows, blues, grays, greens and more. Some have curly foliage, some smooth, some like wire. There are a few excellent drought-resistant varieties that are eye-catching. Most are low growing and clump-forming.
- Cordyline – The cordyline is not a true grass and will grow a thin trunk like a sparsely branched tree over time. Many varieties have purple, yellow, burgundy and even hot pink leaves. Use this one as a focal point in your garden or work the color into a space where it can be appreciated.
- Festuca – Look for greens and blues in this generally smaller-growing grass. There are a number of different varieties from the small clumps of Festuca ovata glauca — often seen in drought-tolerant gardens, to the red fescue that shimmers down hillsides as a groundcover plant.
- Helictrichon – Blue Rye grass has handsome powder blue leaves. It has a striking effect on the landscape with its half-inch, contrasting colored leaves.
- Mellica – There are a number of cultivars of this medium height green decorative grass. One type grows wild on some California hillsides in the chaparral.
- Miscanthus – This offers large group of grasses most of which go dormant in the winter. Varieties can sport wonderfully patterned and painted foliage with whites, greens and yellows.
- Muhlenbergia capilaris – Use this clumping grass as a nice, textural, smaller grass that blooms with delicate clouds of pink in the autumn.
- Muhlenbergia dumosa – Bamboo Grass has long thin, bamboo stems and will grow tall to about 4’ when stems mature. It is a rangy, but attractive ornamental grass.
- Muhlenbergia rigens – Deer grass is a neat, clump-forming, cylindrical-bladed grass that is extremely drought tolerant and will handle the hottest sun.
- Penisetum ‘Moudry’ – Black fountain grass has green foliage and black fuzzy inflorescences (flowers). It is unusual and artistic, but can re-seed into flower gardens and lawns.
- Penisetum rubrum – Red fountain grass is the familiar burgundy grass often used in our area. This plant is easy to grow, decorative and sterile. Do NOT use the plain green Penisetum (Fountain Grass) cultivars unless you don’t mind it invading everywhere!
- Phalaris – ‘Feesy’s Strawberries and Cream’ is a low, sometimes somewhat invasive grass that is mostly white with green streaks and new growth is flushed pink. This one is highly decorative and is invasive only if it can get sufficient water.
- Phormium – This is not a true grass but a very decorative sword-leaved plant that makes a bold statement in the garden. The New Zealand Flax comes in an assortment of outstanding colors with stripes and streaks that can look painted.
This is just a small selection of colorful and textural ornamental grasses and grass-like plants you can use in your garden. Choose the varieties that will do best in your climate and soil and plant them where their vertical shapes and lasting color will have the best impact on the design of your garden.
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