Fountain grass’s resistance to being mowed is evident in the appearance of ragged, tan lawn blades. This makes it easy to identify. This plant is not easy to cut with sharp mower blades.
Pennisetums, native to Africa, Asia, and Australia, are valued for their fountain-like form, foxtail plumes, multiple seasons, and compact size.
One of the most ostentatious grasses, fountain grass (or Pennisetum), is easily identified by its fluffy, bottle-brush flowers that appear from July to September, held over neat mounds of arching foliage.
It is truly spectacular when in bloom, yet not widely grown for two reasons: until it flowers, some argue it is not very memorable. It is only frost-hardy and therefore requires some form of protection to make it through the winter.
Before you write them off, however, consider just how beautiful these flowers are, and imagine stumbling across them in your garden, backlit by the early morning sun.
The sheer beauty of fountain grasses is why I persist in recommending them, why designers keep using them and why you, too, should give them a go. They may not be fully hardy, but they are still tough and fast-growing.
They form soft mounds of bright green foliage, produce long-lasting flowers from midsummer until the first frosts and add graceful movement to the garden.
You can use Pennisetum anywhere you can provide plenty of sun and excellent drainages, such as in borders and pots or window boxes to add impact to late-summer planting.
Fountain Grass Varieties
One of the fluffiest varieties, the bright white caterpillar flowers of feathertop (Pennisetum villosum) are striking enough to hold their own as a single specimen.
Whether you plant them in a pot or the ground, consider surrounding the grass with a mulch of large grey stones to complement the colors and textures.
The dark burgundy foliage stems and flowers of P. x advena ‘Rubrum‘ are exquisite and can be used as bedding to add a touch of heat to a late-summer scheme. The arching deep red flowers gradually fade to beige and are spectacular with other hot colors, such as reds and oranges and purple.
Complement the deep coloring with other burgundy foliage, such as prince’s feather (Amaranthus cruentus ‘Velvet Curtains‘) or red orach (Atriplex hortensis var. rubra), but lighten up the overall effect with airy perennials such as Verbena bonariensis.
If you are after a more romantic feel, combine P. x advena ‘Rubrum‘ with the small red buttons and transparent stems of burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis ‘Red Thunder’), clusters of red valerian (Centranthus ruber), fluffy Stipa (Stipa tenuissima) and umbels, such as milk parsley (Selinum wallichianum), for a picturesque meadow effect.
For a lighter, more luminous style, you could turn to the soft pink flowers and upright growth of oriental fountain grass. P. Orientale ‘Karley Rose’ has deep rose-pink flowers and looks fantastic with more solid perennial forms such as coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum ‘Alabaster’).
Many classic fountain grass varieties (Pennisetum alopecuroides) are relatively hardy in cooler areas if given an open site in full sun with sharp drainage.
Some wonderful varieties to choose from, including the compact P. ‘Hameln,’ which grows to 60cm tall and is one of the most reliable forms in cooler parts of the UK, with slightly smaller flowers than some more tender forms.
If that is still too large for your needs, P. ‘Little Bunny‘ is a dwarf sort of ‘Hameln’ and grows to 45cm tall. P. ‘Cassian’s Choice‘ is another compact 60cm variety that offers wonderful autumnal coloring in addition to fluffy flowers, with the foliage turning rich shades of orange and yellow in September and October.
The best varieties Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ Fine, pale green foliage that grows to 60cm tall with lots of purple flower heads produced from July to September. It’s also very reliable.
P. alopecuroides ‘Cassian’s Choice‘ One of the hardiest compact forms, with gently arching flowers. Lovely autumnal coloring in oranges and buttery yellows. Grows to 70cm tall.
P. alopecuroides ‘Dark Desire‘ A wonderful variety with huge flowers, initially tinted red but deepening to a purple-black tone. Grows to 90cm tall with wide green foliage.
P. alopecuroides ‘Little Bunny‘ Short bristly white flowers contrast with green foliage that turns yellow in the autumn. Ideal for containers. Grows to 45cm tall.
P. x advena ‘Rubrum’ A distinctive form with deep red arching foliage, stems, and flowers. She grows to 120cm tall in a sunny spot and loves to be sun-baked. Be prepared to use it as bedding if you cannot overwinter inside.
P. Orientale ‘Karley Rose‘ Shiny foliage mounds up to 120cm tall, joined from midsummer onwards by nodding fuzzy flowers in deep rose pink. Fabulous in large drifts where you have plenty of suns and good drainage.
P. villosum This bright white form has fluffy flowers that appear to float in a haze above the foliage, forming a striking effect when backlit by the sun. Move inside for the winter, or grow as an annual: 60-75cm.
They may not be fully hardy, but they are adamant and fast-growing
Red Fountain Grass
- Scientific name: Pennisetum setaceum Rubrum.
- Growth habit: A clump-forming upright to slightly arching semi-evergreen perennial grass growing to 5 feet tall and wide. Individual stems grow from the ground, with numerous narrow green-and-red linear leaves growing to a foot long.
- Light: Prefers full sun for best color; tolerates light shade.
- Water needs: Drought tolerant; once established, survives with seasonal rainfall but grows best with weekly watering during the dry times.
- Feedings: Apply a lawn-type fertilizer once monthly in March and June to encourage growth if needed.
- Propagation: By dividing older clumps.
- Ease of culture: Easy.
- Hardiness: Hardy.
- Major problems: Chewing insects can be occasional pests but seldom need control.
- Pruning: Trim to within a foot of the ground mid-to-late February to remove cold damage and renew the plantings. Declining stems can be removed during the growing season. Many gardeners like to harvest the flowering stems for fresh and dried flower arrangements.
- Uses One of the attractive ornamental grasses used in mass as an accent, a ground cover, or a view barrier. Red fountain grass, also called purple fountain grass, makes eye-catching individual plantings for perennial or rock gardens.
Plants also can be cultivated in containers to set on decks, balconies, or patios. Spring-through-fall plantings fill with attractive red-and-green foliage.
From August through October, red foot-long flower plumes form at the tops of the stems. Foliage and plumes turn brown with age, creating good fall and winter displays.
Florida native: No; native to Africa and Southeast Asia.