Splendor of the Grasses
as Cut Flowers
By John Friel
When you say “cut
flowers,” most folks don’t picture grass plumes. But man does not live by red
roses alone, and florists love happy surprises.
For growers, grasses
are a great crop. Compared to traditional cuts, they’re tough and adaptable. Many
grow in marginally fertile soils and thrive with minimal maintenance. There’s a
wide range of heights, colors and textures, and a reasonable harvest season. Deer
leave them alone.
Grass flowers can
be fine and delicate, like Muhlenbergia,
or huge and fluffy, like Cortaderia. And
flowers aren’t the whole story: Long, graceful foliage makes a great filler or accent
Here are some
grasses that work well as fresh cuts.
Miscanthus Maiden Grass (Zones 5-10) This premier landscape
genus is also at home in the vase. Cut plumes young, or they’ll shatter
indoors. Blades can be solid green, or variegated; narrow, or very wide; longitudinally
striped, or cross-banded. Broad-bladed types include ‘Cabaret’ (white
center, green edge) and ‘Cosmopolitan’ (green center, white edge). Their
foliage is 1½” (3.54 cm) across.
Pennisetum alopecuroides: Fountain grass (Zones 6-9) ‘Red Head’
produces unusually large, smoky purple bottlebrush plumes. ‘Moudry’ flowers are
nearly black. P. orientale ‘Karley Rose’ (Zones 5-9) has distinctive rose-pink
flowers. P. macrostachyum ‘Burgundy Giant’ has wide burgundy leaves and very
large foxtail flowers.
Big, annual Pennisetum
varieties ‘Prince’, Noble and First KnightTM have wide, near-black blades.
With these non-flowering hybrids, it’s all about the foliage.
typically sold to florists in bunches of 10 or more. Harvesting technique is
simple: One grower says, “Whack with grass clippers and pick out the good
P. villosum, Feathertop grass:
(Zones 8-10) Puffy, ivory-white plumes sprawl charmingly in the border, but for
cuts, support it with netting.
Schizachyrium scoparium, little bluestem and Andropogon gerardii, big bluestem (Zones 3-9)
Schizachyrium has numerous cultivars selected for
ornamental traits, Andropogon only a
few. It’s better known for naturalistic plantings and restoration. Intrinsic Perennial Farm has updated Andropogon with ‘Rain Dance’ and
‘Blackhawks’, selected for multi-colored foliage. Rich reds and purples deepen as
summer wanes. Schizachyrium varieties
‘Standing Ovation’ and ‘The Blues’ have tremendous late-season stem color.
Briza media Quaking grass (Zones 4-10) The earliest grass to produce saleable
flowers, Briza needs replanting every
three years. Seed heads resemble Chasmanthium,
but appear earlier, tinged red and purple.
Calamagrostis: Feather reed grass (Zones 4-10) is a cosmopolitan
genus, found in Asia, Europe and the Americas. C. xacutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’
was the first grass named Perennial Plant of the Year. Hybrids ‘Avalanche’,
‘Eldorado’ and ‘Karl Foerster’ are usually sterile, and won’t self-sow. C. arundinacea var. brachytricha, whose pink-tinged plumes are the biggest in the genus,
is severely under-appreciated.
Chasmanthium latifolium: Northern sea oats (Zones 5-9)
Chasmanthium tolerates wet winters and can be harvested
at different stages. Some growers cut when the inflorescence is fully mature,
just before it turns tan. Others prefer it still soft, silky and green.
Cortaderia selloana, Pampas grass (Zones 8-10) A beautiful,
tender giant. Feather-duster plumes soar to 10’ (3m) and beyond. Cortaderia can be grown in very large
containers and moved indoors, but that’s a lot of work. The foliage is
dangerously sharp. Why mention something so unsuited to Canada? The flowers.
Eragrostis spectabilis: Purple love grass (Zone 5-9) A North
American native with fine clouds of reddish-purple panicles. An annual
relative, E. tef, is an important African food crop and a trendy grain in
America. ‘Ruby Silk’ is an ornamental form with nifty red flowers.
Helictotrichon sempervirens: Blue oat grass (Zones 4-9) A European
native, spiky and glaucous blue, like a fescue’s big brother. Flower spikes
rise to 3’ (90cm) over 2’ (60cm) foliage clumps.
Leymus arenarius ‘Blue Dune’: Blue Lyme grass, dune grass (Zones 4-9) Powder-blue
sprawling foliage is 2’ (60cm) tall. Flower plumes stand 4’ (1.2M). It runs, but
unwanted plants pull easily. Technically a cool-season grass, it handles roadside
heat and salt. Blue/green seed heads are best tightly closed.
Muhlenbergia capillaris: Purple muhly grass (Zones 6-10) Named for
Gotthilf Muhlenberg, minister, naturalist and botanist, this native produces prodigious
clouds of dazzling pink/purple seedheads. It’s a little tender and
late-flowering for northern growers, but a newer form, ‘Fast Forward’, blooms
Panicum virgatum (Zones 4-10) A North
American native with many cultivars. ‘Heavy Metal’ gets high marks for upright
posture, steel-blue foliage and ease of production. ‘Hot Rod’ has rich
maroon-red blades. Both tolerate clay soils, won’t blow down, and can be cut at
Most cut flower
books barely mention grasses. But heck, anything you want is on the internet,
right? Nope. It’s surprising how little is out there.
For unusual cuts,
the online info mother lode is a bulletin board maintained by and for members
of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. Ohio-based ASCFG is a tremendous resource, well worth the price of
membership, especially if you’re new to cuts. Members are famously
willing to share information on everything from sourcing seeds to building your
own cooler. They’ve made the mistakes, and can save you from repeating them. More at ascfg.org.
John Friel is
marketing manager for Emerald Coast Growers, one of North America’s largest
liner producers. For more information on perennials, specialty plants or
ornamental grasses, call 1-877-804-7277, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.ecgrowers.com.
Grasses in pumpkin:
An impromptu fall
arrangement features plumes and blades of Miscanthus,
Pennisetum and Leymus.
Schizachyrium ‘The Blues’
Miscanthus ‘Cosmopolitan’ foliage is bright and very broad.
Miscanthus plumes must be harvested young and tight.
Leymus ‘Blue Dune’ runs and sprawls, but sports useful seed spikes.
Pennisetum villosum needs netting for
originally appeared in Greenhouse