Pennisetum: Two Seasons of Drama

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Beautiful arching fountain grass

When was the last time you thought about Blue Ribbon pennisetum? Chances are you can’t remember. Fountain grass is one of those plants we use often enough but tend to take for granted. This is a key time of year to keep it on your radar.

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A versatile vertical element in the garden

Pennisetum is great for adding drama right now because it loves the heat, plus it ages well going into fall so it enhances autumn décor as well. Because it is a warm season grass, now is when we start to see the beautiful arching plumes that spawned the common name fountain grass. That iconic vase-like shape heightens the interest and lends an air of sophistication as a vertical element in the garden.

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Colors and textures create dramatic plantings

Color is an important nuance when it comes to creating drama—it sets the tone for the mood we’re trying to create and is another reason to go with pennisetum. We find foliage in a range of shades, from green to red to black, including some cultivars with striking variegation.

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‘Fireworks’ adds color well beyond July 4th

‘Fireworks’ probably just popped into your head—it’s a festival of color all by itself, with stripes of red, pink, burgundy, green, and white, accompanied by red-burgundy foxtail flowers. ‘Rubrum’, or purple fountain grass, is dark and mysterious, with deep burgundy foliage and bronze-purple plumes. ‘Sky Rocket’ gives a lighter, brighter effect—its narrow blades are striped green and white, with plumes that appear smoky pink and turn cream-colored as they age.

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‘Sky Rocket’—lighter, brighter, and slightly shorter

Size is another consideration when choosing a pennisetum. Some are short, reaching about 2 feet or up to your knees, while others come up to your waist or even higher, to your shoulders—and that’s just the foliage. Plumes add even more height. Of course, shorter varieties lend themselves to containers as thrillers while taller ones can be used along a fence or wall toward the back, or as a centerpiece in an open area. Keep in mind that ‘Fireworks’ reaches 3–6 feet tall, ‘Rubrum’ 3–4 feet, and ‘Sky Rocket’ between 2 and 3 feet.

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Fast growing grasses quickly reach their mature height

Once it’s in the ground, pennisetum reaches its mature height fairly quickly. Water it generously until it becomes established—then whatever the elements dish out is usually fine. An interesting fact in case Plants comes up as a Jeopardy category: millet is actually a pennisetum—but that’s another story.

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Dramatic plumes age well into fall