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  • Writer's pictureSamantha Miller

On Grasses...

Updated: Jul 17, 2022

This blog post aims to serve as a 'what and what not' to select for my future planting schemes - grass edition. Growing up in the prairies, I have a deep love and attachment to grasses. But, I need to have a clear understanding of which species of grasses to avoid in BC, and which ones I can keep by my side.

Scientific Name: Nassella (stipa) tenuissima

Common Name: Mexican feather grass

Family: Poaceae

Where/When: Marine Drive Gardens, June 15 (Week 2)

This finely textured perennial grass is known for its ability to sway in the wind ever so gracefully. While this grass is very aesthetically pleasing, it might only look great for a couple of years before it starts to die. The lime green foliage looks pretty brown in spring until summer and then turns a bronzy peach in the fall. It has a hair-like seed dispersal mechanism that jumps out onto passing animals, where it gets carried and seeded elsewhere. As such, it is best where it can be contained, like the edge of a gravel parking lot edge.

Personal photograph taken June 15, 2022.

Scientific Name: Phalaris arundinacea ‘Feesey’s Form’

Common Name: Reed canary grass

Family: Poaceae

Where/When: Stanley Park, July 6 (Week 5)

This super common species can be found pretty much anywhere. This upright, rhizomatous, deciduous grass might also be listed in some places under the selection name 'Strawberries and Cream.' The genera Phalaris arundinacea is an invasive spreader, but this specific selection 'Feesey's Form' is less likely to flower and thus less invasive. This selection is distinguished by having more white in the variegated weeds. This species is still vigorous and hard to control in wetter conditions. As such, it is best to plant this in a well-draining place like on a slope, or somewhere where it can be contained, like in a container or on slab. It is also tolerant of a range of sun/shade conditions but prefers having a good amount of sun.

Personal photograph taken on July 6, 2022

Scientific Name: Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Kokuryu’ (syn. ‘Nigrescens’)

Common Name: Black mondo grass

Family: Asparagaceae

Where/When: Stanley Park, July 6 (Week 5)

This is an evergreen, clump-forming grass-like perennial that grows from short rhizomes. It comes from tropical Asia. While this is quite a tough plant, being tolerant of some drought and shade, it is very difficult to use. With too much shade, some of the black foliage will turn green. Additionally, only some seedlings will be black which means the green will take over. In summary, while its black foliage adds some interest to the garden, it will be a pain to keep black and is probably not worth it. If you're going to use it, plant it where it will get a good amount of sun and maybe in a container.

Personal photograph taken on July 6, 2022

Scientific Name: Festuca glauca

Common Name: Blue fescue, sheep fescue

Family: Poaceae

Where/When: Van Dusen Botanical Garden, July 13 (Week 6)

This compact, mound-forming ornamental grass grows up to around 12 inches tall. This species is adapted to be very drought tolerant, making it a great choice for a xeriscape garden. While the grass blades are seemingly cylindrical, it is actually a flat leaf that has rolled itself over. It is important to note that this grass is not a good competitor in the garden, so it would be best to grow it on a slope where nothing else will be happy. It is intolerant of shade and looks pretty bad after the first winter. It would be a hard one to take care of if you don't have someone maintaining it that knows how to properly brush out the dead bits with their fingertips.

Personal photograph taken on July 13, 2022

Scientific Name: Calamagrostis x acutiflora

Common Name: Feather reed grass

Family: Poaceae

Where/When: Van Dusen Botanical Garden, July 13 (Week 6)

Oh this makes my little prairie heart so happy. I braced myself as we walked up to this grass, preparing for Doug to give a lecture on how terrible this one is, but I was overjoyed when that wasn't the case. A classic in world-renowned garden designer, Piet Oudolf's planting schemes, Calamagrostis x acutiflora is an upright ornamental grass with loads of all-season interest. Unlike some other upright grasses, this species stays upright even in the rain. The slightly variegated leaves are light and feathery. The bronzy-purple inflorescences get even better as they open up and brown throughout the season. It does best in well-draining soil with a bit of moisture and can tolerate full sun to partial sun. There are a couple of noteworthy selections like 'Karl Foerster' (which is so hardy, it's a staple in Winnipeg) and 'Overdam'.

Scientific Name: Pennisetum orientalis

Common Name: Oriental fountain grass

Family: Poaceae

Where/When: Van Dusen Botanical Garden, July 13 (Week 6)

This hardy tuft grass is a low-growing, compact, and easy-to-grow eye-catchers in the garden. The long bloom season boasts fluffy flower spikes that stick out above the foliage. The flowers are narrow panicles, about 4-5 inches long, and they arch ever so delicately. It looks great as a specimen, in a group, on borders, or in containers. It does best in full sun, with well-drained soils and might even tolerate some drought. The only downside is that this species is just about as bad as Deschampsia caespitosa in its ability to be taken over by weedy grasses. It might just be worth the hassle though... it's so cute.

Scientific Name: Arrhenantherum elatius subsp. bulbosum ‘Variegatum’

Common Name: Bulbous oat grass, Tuber oat grass

Family: Poaceae

Where/When: Van Dusen Botanical Garden, July 13 (Week 6)

This is a very popular herbaceous ornamental grass for small gardens. It forms upright and spiky yet soft mounts. The silvery foliage looks very lovely glistening in the sun and is handy because you can more easily see when weedy green grasses have taken over. This does best in an enclosed and protected space where it won't get trampled or walked on. It prefers moist, well-drained soil but is tolerant of a range of sun and moisture conditions. I can see how the colouring and form of this grass would be a nice compliment to many other species.


Works Cited:

"Arrhenatherum elatius subsp bulbosum." North Carolina State Plant Toolbox,

"Black Mondo Grass 'Nigrescens." Garden Tags,

"Calamagrostis x acutiflora." BBC Gardeners World Magazine,

"Pennisetum orientale (Oriental Fountain Grass)."

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