|Panicum virgatum 'Northwind'
It's the perfect partner for the ex-asters, vernonia, juniperus, phlox, chasmanthium and hypericums that make their home at Clay and Limestone. I value panicums for its strong vertical habit, showy flowers and interesting winter silhouette.
Panicum virgatum has a long history on this continent. It's native to the tall grass prairies of the Great Plains from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. Grasses like switchgrass, big bluestem, little bluestem and Indian grass dominated the tall grass prairies and were grazed by bison, deer and elk. It’s an upright, warm season bunching grass that can still be found growing in ‘remnant prairies’ and along interstates.
Or, in your favorite garden center where delicious cultivars have made it to the market! Once again, we have European breeders to thank for making another marvelous native attractive to us! They've brought us lovely cultivars and spurred American breeders to get on the native grass bandwagon. I have two current favorites!
‘Northwind’ is without a doubt the most upright grass I’ve ever encountered. Heavy rains, and you know we have heavy rains in Middle Tennessee, have not brought it to its feet. The color is an interesting olive green that works well in my garden. But, holy-moly, what really makes this grass attractive is the long season of golden color. In my garden it begins to golden up in September and continues all winter. Some call it a tawny gold. I call it perfect. Panicum prefers full sun, and moist, fertile soil; however, the plant will tolerate sand, heavy clay, dry slopes and boggy areas and less then full sun in my garden. Drought tolerant. Hardy to Zone 4. Grows five feet tall.
‘Cheyenne Sky’ is a small red switchgrass that I am hoping can completely replace annual Pennisetum ‘Rubrum’ in my garden. It’s been described as a sturdy little plant that should remain standing throughout the winter. I’ve read that it can take wet winters and even periods of standing water! That sounds perfect for this garden with our wet winters. Panicum prefers full sun, and moist, fertile soil; however, the plant will tolerate sand, heavy clay, dry slopes and boggy areas. Hardy to Zone 4. Grows three feet tall.
Just in case I haven't made my case to convince you to switch to switchgrass. Consider this~They fill the garden with movement and beauty all year long, while providing food and shelter for visiting mammals, birds and insects.
Not bad for a grass.
Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone.