776 Miscanthus sinensisCommon Names: Japanese silver grass, miscanthus, eulalia, maiden grass, zebra grass, flame grass Family: Poaceae (grass Family)
Miscanthus sinensis is the premier ornamental grass - a garden favorite for centuries. There are literally hundreds of cultivars, differing in blade size, shape and color pattern; plant height and texture; summer, autumn and winter foliage colors; flower timing and color; and cold hardiness. What they have in common are a clump forming habit (never forming turf), in which the leaves grow up then cascade out and down like a fountain; foliage that turns various shades of gold or bronze in autumn and holds up well throughout the winter; erect flowers that shine in the summer sun, then turn soft and fluffy in winter, and persist beautifully in dried arrangements; and a preference for sunny positions in the landscape. The wild form is a large bunch grass, to 12 ft (3.7 m) tall and 5 ft (1.5 m) wide, with leaf blades almost 1 in (2.5 cm) across. The leaves are medium green with a prominent white midrib, and dry to straw yellow in winter. The dense inflorescence, produced in late summer, is reddish purple, aging to silvery. Just a few of the better known cultivars are listed here.
Maiden grass (M. sinensis 'Gracillimus') is an old time garden favorite with delicate, fine textured foliage and a graceful, rounded form. The clumps of foliage can get up to 4 (1.2 m) tall, and the flowering stalks can reach 7 ft (2.1 m). Established specimens may flop under their own weight and should be divided every few years. Maiden grass has very narrow leaf blades that are about a 0.25 in (0.6 cm) across and are green with a white midrib stripe down the center.
Maiden grass blooms with silky tassels of coppery-red flowers in mid-autumn - later than most cultivars, and in areas with short growing seasons, it may not bloom at all. In winter the leaves turn warm golden yellow and the flowers turn cool silvery white.
Porcupine grass (cv. 'Strictus') is another classic ornamental grass sometimes listed as M. sinensis var. strictus. This one has a rigid, upright habit and stiff, pointed leaf blades some of which stick out at angles like porcupine quills. The leaves are patterned crossways with yellow bands, producing an effect like dappled sunlight. It gets up to 8 ft (2.4 m) tall with a spread of 3-4 ft (0.9-1.2 m). Porcupine grass is more tolerant of wet soils than other cultivars and is often planted next to ponds or pools. Porcupine grass is similar to zebra grass (cv. 'Zebrinus') which also has yellow banded leaves, but is more floppy and arching instead of stiffly upright.
Cultivar 'Variegatus' is another antique that still adorns some 18th century landscapes. This is a large grass, to 8 ft (2.4 m) tall and spreading fountain-like to 5 ft (1.5 m) across. It is prone to flop and collapse under its own weight, and should be given support. The leaves are pale green with distinctive creamy white stripes and the plant produces a very pronounced and strange white effect in the landscape. The ghostly color seems to brighten other plants nearby. 'Variegatus' blooms with reddish pink flower spikes in early autumn. This one is a little more shade-tolerant than most, but of course shade makes it reach for the light and more likely to flop over.
Flame grass (cv. 'Purpurescens') has foliage that turns reddish in summer, then ignites into purplish orange-red in autumn. By mid-winter it is a deep burgundy color. This is a smaller, more compact selection, 3-4 ft (0.6-0.9 m) tall, with an upright, less cascading habit.
'Silver Feather' or 'Silberfeder' has large feathery plumes of silver flowers that are held way above the 5 ft (1.5 m) mound of cascading green foliage. Even the flower stalks, which can get 7 ft (2.1 m) tall, fall over, but they still look good. This is one of the most cold hardy cultivars and will flower even in zone 5.
'Morning Light', cultivated for more than century in Japan, is just now becoming one of the most popular cultivars in America. It has narrow, silver striped leaves and an upright habit to 5 ft (1.5 m) tall that never flops over. This is perhaps the most elegant of all the Miscanthus sinensis cultivars.
The original Miscanthus sinensis from which the many horticultural selections have been made still grows wild in eastern China, Korea, Japan, the Ryukus, and Taiwan.
CultureOld foliage should be cut back to the ground at the end of winter before new growth starts. Light: Most of the Miscanthus sinensis cultivars do best in full sun. They can survive partial shade, but they tend to get thin and lanky, and flop over. Cultivar 'Variegatus' may require dappled shade in hot climate summers. Moisture: Most of the cultivars are actually quite drought tolerant, but all perform best with regular watering. Some can grow at poolside with their feet in the water. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 9. 'Gracillimus', 'Variegatus' 'Zebrinus' and 'Morning Light' are hardy to zone 5. 'Strictus', 'Purpurescens' and 'Silberfeder' are hardy to zone 4. Some cultivars are hardy only to zone 6. Many of the miscanthus cultivars do not do very well in Florida's heat and humidity; the thin-leaved types such as 'Gracillimus' are best. Propagation: Most miscanthus cultivars are propagated by division of the root clumps. To avoid stressing the plant, do this at the end of the dormant season before new growth begins. Many of the cultivars are large with massive root clumps and it may be necessary to use an axe to chop out a section for transplanting. Maiden grass (cv. 'Gracillimus') is the one cultivar that can be propagated from seed.
There's a miscanthus variety for almost every garden use. Larger forms are used as focal point specimens or as backdrops for perennials and shrubs. A row makes a dense but non-threatening hedge. Smaller cultivars shine in mixed grass groupings. Use miscanthus to anchor hedges and borders, but don't crowd them. The silvery and white forms are great foils for more colorful plants. The dried flower spikes last indefinitely in arrangements.
During the gray season, clumps of golden miscanthus with silvery tassels aloft defy Old Man Winter and promise a spring to come. These are among the showiest and least invasive of ornamental grasses. They look great in summer, but even better in winter. Miscanthus grasses have been a favorite of landscape architects in the U.S. since the 1700's. Old clumps can still be seen anchoring walkways and corners in American Victorian landscapes. A dozen or so antique cultivars are available, and many more new selections, improving on size, habit and flowering, have been introduced in the last few years.
Chinese silver grass is invading and disrupting native plant communities in many places from the southeastern United States to California and the West Coast. Check locally to see if this species is a problem in your area - non-invasive selections may be available.
Steve Christman 8/16/00; updated 10/12/03, 2/12/04