When last we talked of grasses, I shared some of my cool-season favorites. Today let’s talk about grasses that wake up in the second half of spring, when temperatures begin to grow and the soil starts to warm. These are known as warm-season grasses. They develop and bloom throughout summer’s warmth and frequently peak in fall. Many remain attractive through dormancy into winter, and all require little more than an early spring haircut before growth starts for maintenance.
Popular miscanthus (Miscanthus sinensis cultivars) is the grand dame of warm season grasses — so much that I locate people are more likely to know it by its botanical name than its common name (“maiden grass”). You’ll find a lot of varieties of miscanthus on the current market, but many are 4 to 6 feet tall, have a vase shape and blossom anytime from midsummer to fall. My favorite is the standby’Morning Light’ (zones 5 to 9), a vision in rather slim, flocked blades. This one blooms late or not at all, which makes it more a foliage plant, however, that is good in that Miscanthus sinensis, the parent species of all these grasses, has come under fire because a weedy, seedy invasive species in the past couple of decades. Experts question the cultivars’ capability to seed, however, the main point is: When it does not blossom, it won’t set seed. Miscanthus enjoys full sun.
A warm-season grass that is exploded in popularity lately is change grass (Panicum virgatum, zones 5 to 9). The species is pictured here along with its cultivar ‘Dallas Blues’. Switch grass is native to almost all of North America, save to the West Coast. Its grace as a foliage plant is surpassed only by its pretty pink blossoms, and this grass thrives in heat and drought. Most cultivars come in either blue, such as’Dallas Blues’ or popular’Heavy Metal’, or crimson, as in’Prairie Fire’ and’Shenandoah’. ‘Northwind’ is another blue cultivar of fantastic use to designers because of its striking vertical posture. All prefer sunlight.
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If you need a fabulous grass for shade, look no farther than Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra, zones 5 to 9). Another newly popular group, these little grasses excel in shade, even reasonably dry shade. Forest grasses are inclined to be a bit chartreuse, and my favorite is’All Gold’ (shown here), that positively glows. These little men max out at about 11/2 feet tall and wide, and their obviously cascading habit makes them gorgeous for elevated beds and walls. They take their time getting settled in, but once they do, they will more than return your investment of time.
So many great grasses have just lately come into vogue, and one is muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris, zones 5 to 9). Muhly is another indigenous, calling the southeastern half of the United States home. This grass much prefers sunlight, inadequate soil and well-drained soil, which makes it a prime candidate for coastal planting. Its narrow blades are beautiful, but its misty pink-purple blooms in fall are its real claim to fame. White-flowered varieties may also be found in the marketplace today.
Last but certainly not least is a grass that deserves far more attention:’Karley Rose’ fountain grass (Pennisetum orientale‘Karley Rose,’ zones  6 to 8). There aren’t many grasses I do not adore, but this could be my favorite. ‘Karley’ gets larger and beefier than your average fountain grass — about 3 feet tall and 4 feet wide. It blooms in fuzzy pink early in the summer, with blossoms that fade into some buff pink. On top of that, it reblooms throughout the season, so it is an all-summer stunner. ‘Karley Rose’ needs full sun and dry soil to thrive, and good drainage is essential in the northern reaches of its scope.
Ornamental Grasses in the Landscape
Great Plant: New Zealand Wind Grass