Ornamental grasses can add color and interest to the garden, and are low maintenance.

Grasses have been a trendy ornamental garden plant for a couple of decades. They are low maintenance, stand upright even in winter, blow in the breeze, come in a variety of colors and sometimes have attractive tassels or seed heads.

They add a contrast to needled evergreens and broadleaf flowering shrubs and perennials. As a bonus, more native options are now available.

We’ve grown a number of grasses in our gardens – putting in several imports before we paid much attention to natives. Some we probably wouldn’t buy again but others we would.

Miscanthus sinensis, common name maiden grass, is one of the most popular ornamental grasses, and it is easy to see why. Some varieties are more than 6 feet tall, many are variegated and have gorgeous plumes that persist all winter.

Unfortunately, they have escaped into the wild and been deemed invasive in some states south of Maine – and with climate change they could eventually become invasive here. The authors of “Grasses and Rushes of Maine,” the field guide I wrote about Feb. 17, did not find any maiden grass in Maine, but they did find its cousin – Miscanthus sacchariflorus, or silver grass, which is a non-native that escaped from cultivation.

One non-native that my wife, Nancy, and I would (and probably will) plant again is Hakone grass, Hakonechloa macro, which forms clumps of variegated blades, will stand quite a bit of shade, spreads slowly and is well-behaved. The cultivar “Aureola” was named Perennial Plant of the Year in 2009.

Getting immersed in grasses because of the new field guide, I asked Don Cameron, a co-author of the book and a botanist with the Maine Natural Areas Program, which Maine natives might work well as specimens in home gardens. He listed a few, which I describe below.

But first, this primer on the difference between species and cultivars:

A species is a plant as grown in the wild and sometimes from seed in nurseries. Plant species can differ in how they look, just like homo sapiens (an animal species) can differ in how we look.

A cultivar is a plant chosen for unique characteristics such as larger flowers and/or unusual foliage. The original plant can be found in the wild or created by hybridization. Once the desired plant is selected, new plants are produced through tissue culture, and every plant is genetically the same. Cultivars have a trade name, surrounded by single quotation marks. Native-plant purists prefer species because they provide more diversity for wildlife. Cultivars of natives do provide more benefits than imports do, though.

Now, back to the grasses.

Big bluestem, or Andropogon gerardii, is one of the most common – and important – grasses nationwide. In Maine it is rarer, found along roadsides, river ledges and in sand-plain communities, the field guide says.

Big bluestem cultivars grow up to 6 feet tall. Look for “Red October” at O’Donal’s, praised for its deep green leaves and red highlights in the spring, which get redder as the season progresses. “Blackhawks,” sold at Estabrook’s, has dark green foliage that turns dark purple or black in fall.

Little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, grows in open dry, sandy or rocky uplands throughout the state, and is 3 to 4 feet tall. Cultivars are widely available at Maine nurseries. They are praised for their color – which can range from blue to purple, as the name implies, and seed heads, which the native birds enjoy. Wild Seed Project sells seeds for the species.

Switchgrass, or Panicum virgatum, is the most popular native grass in Maine nurseries. Estabrook’s offers 11 cultivars, O’Donal’s has six and Skillins, three. The cultivar “Heavy Metal” is one of my favorites, growing 4 feet tall with metallic blue leaves that go amber in the fall. “Northwind,” which grows 5 feet tall, was the Perennial Plant of the Year for 2014. All panicums thrive in part shade, which adds versatility. None of the nurseries sells the species as plants, but Wild Seed Project sells seeds.

The other two Maine grasses that Cameron recommended will be tough to find locally for sale as plants.

Bluejoint grass, Calamagrostis canadensis, is common throughout the state, can grow about 5 feet tall and has feathery panicles with a bit of purple. The seed is listed in several national catalogs and the seedlings at a few, including Prairie Moon Nursery.

Some imports are sold locally. Calamagrostis acutiflora, feather reed grass, from Europe, is highly popular – Better Homes and Gardens calls the cultivar “Karl Foerster” the best-selling ornamental grass nationwide. A Korean feather reed grass is also available.

Indiangrass, Sorghastrum nutans, is rare for sale as a plant but commonly available as seed, and is part of the meadow mix recommended by the University of New Hampshire, which I wrote about last week.

I found two Deschampsia, or hair grass species, in Maine catalogs. Cameron didn’t mention them when we spoke, but they are in the field guide. Estabrook’s has species of D. cespitosa and D. flexuosa and the cespitosa cultivar “Golden Dew,” while O’Donal’s has D. cespitosa “Goldtau.” All grow between 18 inches and 3 feet tall, with airy panicles containing fuzzy flowers.

Six fescues grow wild in Maine, but none is listed in catalogs. The only rush, or juncus, I was able to find was European.

Heather McCargo of Wild Seed Project recommended three nurseries where people can buy seedlings of native grasses: Northeast Pollinator Plants in Vermont, New England Wetland Plants in Massachusetts and Van Berkum Nursery in New Hampshire.

One of the best grass-like plants to grow in Maine is in the new field guide’s predecessor, “Sedges of Maine” from 2013. Carex Pensylvanica, which despite its name is native to Maine, is an outstanding ground cover for shady areas and withstands drought. It makes a great lawn in places where grass won’t grow.

I would like to use it with the violets in our backyard, but sedges don’t respond well to mowing and might look too shaggy for our suburban tastes.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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