Ornamental grasses explode in the landscape

Pennisetum Vertigo at the UT Gardens, Jackson
Pennisetum Vertigo is among the newer burgundy varieties available. It grows well at both the UT Gardens in Knoxville and Jackson (shown above). Photo by C. Reese, courtesy UTIA. Download image.

UT Gardens July 2014 Plant of the Month:

Submitted by Beth Willis, trials coordinator for the UT Gardens, Knoxville

Pennisetum can refer to a number of different species of ornamental grasses, all commonly referred to as fountain grass. Two that have come to market in the last few years offer new and interesting characteristics for gardeners, particularly for those who enjoy the annual burgundy fountain grass.

First is ‘Fireworks’ – a showy, finely textured grass with variegated blades of burgundy, pink, cream and green. It is an annual, but the Fireworks cultivar is so attractive many believe it is worth replacing each year in the landscape. Fireworks forms a clump that reaches 2 ½ to 3 feet in height, and it is topped with soft bottle-brush plumes. It provides a lot of movement in the breeze. While it works well in containers, Fireworks can be used as a specimen plant, and it is striking when planted in mass.

The second Pennisetum that is relatively new to the market and has very interesting characteristics is more accurately described as a group of cultivars. They are hybrids of Pennisetum purpureum, an African species of grass sometimes referred to as elephant grass. These varieties are larger than other fountain grasses both in height and in blade size. The cultivar that I am personally familiar with, Vertigo®, has been grown in the UT Gardens in Knoxville and Jackson for the last three years. Vertigo® is hardier than the smaller burgundy fountain grass, and has overwintered every year except last year. Vertigo® develops into substantial clumps reaching 5- to 6-feet tall, and each individual blade can be as much as 2 inches wide. This gives it a bold, almost tropical feel in the landscape. It does not produce plumes, so it will not reseed in your garden. It retains its deep burgundy color throughout the summer. Other, similar cultivars are on the market, including ‘Princess’ (2- to 3-feet tall), ‘Princess Caroline’ (3- to 4-feet tall) and ‘Princess Molly’ (a dwarf cultivar that only reaches 14- to 20-inches tall).

All Pennisetum varieties like full sun and will provide a beautiful contrast to your flowering plants.

Beth Willis is the trials coordinator for the UT Gardens, Knoxville. Designated as the official botanical garden for the State of Tennessee, the UT Gardens include plant collections located in Knoxville, Jackson and Crossville. As part of the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, their mission is to foster appreciation, education and stewardship of plants through garden displays, educational programs and research trials. The gardens are open during all seasons and free to the public. For more information see the UT Gardens website.



Beth Willis, UT Gardens, Knoxville, ewillis2@utk.edu

Patricia McDaniels, UTIA Marketing and Communications Services, 615-835-4570, pmcdaniels@tennessee.edu