Expert ’s choice
When all else is fading, these elegant grasses with bristly heads are at their best, says Graham Rice
We all get confused about grasses. We know the difference between a dahlia and a chrysanthemum but sorting out the different grasses is much more of a challenge. One group that’s easier to identify than most is the fountain grasses, Pennisetum, attractive perennial grasses from warmer parts of the world with their peak season of interest in late summer and autumn. What sets them apart from other grasses is the mass of bristly bottlebrush spikes, fountains of them, upright or arching, held above slender, graceful foliage emerging from tough, tight, slowly spreading crowns. The flowers may be creamy or various tan and biscuit shades, some with pink or red overtones, with many retaining their looks right through the autumn into winter and even into spring. The long, narrow foliage is attractive without being stunning – until autumn when the leaves often develop golden, buttery shades, perhaps with coppery overtones, as the season advances. One species, the half hardy P. x advena, even comes in some dramatic dark-red and variegated varieties. As features in autumn containers, in drifts through informal prairie-style borders, as intriguing softeners in bold, late-season displays, in gravel… pennisetums have many uses. They’re subtle but exude real presence. You won’t regret planting them.
Position Happy in most free-draining soils that are not wet in winter. Best in full sun and will tolerate some shade from the side, but not from overhead. Care All those mentioned here except P. x advena (and many we rarely grow) are hardy in the right conditions. All are good in pots and will tolerate an occasional missed watering. Cut back to ground level in spring just as the new growth starts. Where to buy alpinesandgrasses.co.uk, 01775 640935; knollgardens.co.uk, 01202 873931; meadowgatenursery.co.uk, 01243 641997
PLANT DIRECTORY Find the perfect Pennisetum for your garden by using our plant finder at gardenersworld.com/ plant-finder