Decorative grasses have more than texture and shape to recommend them.
A favorite landscape tool of master gardener Carol Stuttard, decorative grasses are also hardy and easy to maintain — though they do need some water and must be cut once a year.
They also work best in mass plantings, displaying seasonal color changes and attracting wildlife.
“I don’t like everything manicured,” says Stuttard. Grasses are ideal for that.
At her Scottsdale home, decorative grasses are tucked next to other plants, like lavender, and soften path edges. They also work well near water features but not near barbecues, fire pits and outdoor heaters, where they pose a fire hazard. In Stuttard’s backyard, decorative grasses include purple threeawn (Aristida purpurea), umbrella plant (Cyperus papyrus), variegated Japanese grass (Miscanthus sinensis), Mexican feather grass (Nasella tenuissima), pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris), purple fountain grass and lemon grass (Cymbopogon ciatrus).
“There are many people who plant green fountain grass but, because it selfseeds, it has been crowding out a lot of our native plants,” says Stuttard. Purple Fountain Grass provides the same aesthetics without the negative environmental impact.
“Lemon grass is not only pretty, but you can use it in your cooking.”
Stuttard says pink muhly is prized for its color and its ability to tolerate heat, poor soil conditions and drought. Like other grasses, pink muhly works well in dried arrangements. Mexican feather grass is revered for its lyrical movement at the hint of a breeze. With its showy flowers, variegated Japanese grass is good in the yard and in the house as cuttings. Umbrella plant, with a canopy of narrow leaves topping a slender, grassy stem, is best used around water features as it requires constant moisture. In the summer purple threeawn maintains a seed head resembling a cloud of purple.
“Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) is my favorite grass,” says Janet Rademacher of Mountain States Wholesale Nursery in Glendale. An attractive bunch grass commonly used by American Indians in making baskets, deer grass’ early fall bloom include straw yellow flowers. Pappusgrass (Pappohorum mucronulatum), another grass favored by the nurserywoman, flowers from March to October. It makes a good accent grass along drives.
“I don’t know how widely used decorative grasses are by homeowners,” says Rademacher, whose backyard is home to a variety of grasses, “but landscape architects have been incorporating them into projects pretty extensively for the last five to six years.”
Other decorative grasses
Spidergrass (Aristida ternipes) is appropriate for informal gardens or open areas.
Cane beardgrass (Bothriochloa barbinodis) can be grouped in open areas or contrasted with dark green species to accent the silvery, hairy plumes.
Sprucetop grama (Bouteloua chondrosioides) looks best planted in a group or contrasted with other species that emphasize the grass’ clusters of flowers.
Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) can be grouped in open areas or used intermittently throughout a perennial garden.
Arizona cottontop (Digitaria californica) makes an attractive accent in landscape during late summer and fall.
Curly mesquite (Hilaria belangeri) can be used as a natural lawn.
New Mexico feather grass (Stipa neomexicana) resembles an amber wave of grain.
Source: “Desert Grasses” by the Arizona Native Plant Society