University of Illinois Extension
Bruce Spangeberg

These articles are written to apply to the northeastern corner of Illinois. Problems and timing may not apply outside of this area.

Stateline Yard & Garden

Ornamental Grasses at Peak in Fall

October 26, 2000

One of the notable showy groups of landscape plants conspicuous in fall is the ornamental grasses. Many will remain showy into the winter months. Now is an excellent time to observe many ornamental grasses in their prime. This can help plan future landscape plantings.

Most native ornamental grasses have outstanding characteristics in fall. Both Little and Big Bluestem are prime examples. Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) features erect clumps of arching reddish-brown fall color. Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) is a much taller species, which grows in upright, open clumps of arching foliage with "turkey-foot" seedheads.

Indian grass (Sorghastrun nutans) is another showy native perennial ornamental grass in fall. The tall, medium textured blue-green foliage of summer has turned to bronze. Likewise, side oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) is an interesting native species featuring narrow, erect seedstalks with a single row of florets.

Probably the largest group of ornamental grasses used in landscapes is the Miscanthus sinensis, or Chinese silvergrass species, which includes many cultivars. Most appear now as tall, arching clumps with showy seedheads that will hang on for some time. Some of the popular cultivars include 'Morning Light', 'Strictus' (banded foliage), 'Purpurascens' (excellent reddish color in fall), 'Siberfedher' (white seedheads in fall), 'Variegatus', and 'Zebrinus' (banded foliage). 'Gracillimus' is also an excellent specimen but rarely produces seedheads.

Very showy seedheads in large numbers are a prime feature of northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) in fall and winter. The seedheads are flat and are good for cut flower arrangements. Northern sea oats will grow in partial shade and looks good near water.

Finally, a very popular ornamental grass is feather reed grass, or Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'. Strong, upright clumps with of bronze flowers are visible now and will last throughout the winter. This grass is used considerably in the industry.

Fall is an excellent time to view grasses, either in your own yard or in other locations. If considering ornamental grasses for future plantings in your yard, now is the time to see their best features in living color.


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