Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Japanese Silver Grass: Ornamental Grass With Four-season Appeal

An ornamental grass with four-season appeal

Japanese silver grass is as beautiful as its common name sounds. Most members of the genus, whose botanical name is Miscanthus sinensis, are elegant plants with a sheaflike habit. Narrow at the base, the clumps rise to five feet or more and fan out at the top. In summer, the different varieties provide an exquisite background for the large, colorful flowers of daylilies and other perennials. The fine, complex pattern of their blades fills the negative spaces among the perennials and knits the garden together. But these grasses really come into their own in the fall, when other perennials are flagging.

Japanese silver grass is a true four-season plant. Flower heads appear in September and October, rising above the top of the clump. At first the wispy clusters look like drummers' brushes, but as the seeds mature and the head dries it fluffs out, becoming a silvery, silken plume that is decorative in the garden or in the house.

In winter, the dry stalks and leaves turn subtle shades of old gold, beige, and parchment and hold their graceful carriage. Bowed down by heavy rain or snow, they usually resume their upright position as soon as the foliage dries. Lightly dusted with snow, they are at their beautiful winter best.

Outstanding Varieties

The different varieties and cultivars rejoice in nicknames of their own. M. sinensis 'Gracillimus' is commonly called maiden grass, though 'Gracillimus' seems much more appropriate, considering the extreme refinement of its thin, green blades with white midribs.

M. sinensis strictus is aptly known as porcupine grass for its rigid green foliage attractively marked with creamy yellow horizontal bands. A similar species with horizontal yellow markings, M. sinensis zebrinus, received the name zebra grass. Porcupine grass is more desirable because of its neat, upright habit. Fast-growing clumps of zebra grass tend to fall open in the center.

While M. sinensis variegatus has no common name, it is well known and deservedly popular for its gorgeous, vertically striped cream and green blades that rise up in a lovely fountain shape. Cream seems to predominate, and a mature clump is as bright and eye-catching as a flowering shrub. 'Silver Arrow' is a choice cultivar with six-foot green blades neatly lined with white. More vertical in thrust than the variegated form, the overall color is a pale, silvery green.

Growing Conditions

Native to both China and Japan, these handsome grasses flourish in American gardens from Zones 5 through 9. They are easy to grow and long-lived. They resist deer, diseases, and insects, and they are drought tolerant. You can't ask much more than that, but in addition, miscanthus grasses require a minimum of maintenance. Give them full sun, and cut them down to the ground in the early spring so that the new foliage will not have to struggle up through last year's growth.

In selecting a site for your grasses, try to get them in the right place the first time because they are difficult to move. They have very long, deep, wiry roots. Division should be done in the early spring. Cruel as it sounds, an ax is the tool of choice. Don't try to dig up the whole clump. Instead, leave it in the ground and hack it into quarters. Keep one quarter in place and remove the other pieces. The remaining quarter will soon be large and lovely once more.

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