About Pennisetum

The grasses garden. Pennisetum 'Woodside' unfurls against the red helenium. Further you can see pennisetum 'Hameln' and 'Magic'

The grasses garden. Pennisetum 'Woodside' unfurls against the red helenium. Further you can see pennisetum 'Hameln' and 'Magic'

I simply love pennisetums. All of them. I don’t know why it is one of those plants which cultivars are not that different one from another, however I can’t help avoiding to buy some new one every time I see it (thinking I’m making a big deal!). Pennisetums might be very easy to grow as most of the grasses belonging to the Poaceae family. They’re clump forming and depending on the subspecies they can start bearing flowers from early june until frost. The origin of the name is related to its flowers: pennisetum means something like ‘silky feather’.

Amongst the selections I own, the earliest flowerer is pennisetum orientalis ‘Karley rose’, named after the breeder’s daughter, flowers are pinkish and less furry than alopecuroides, slim and elegant. Another orientalis I really appreciate is p. o. ‘Tall Tails’: long white spikes bear on very tall stems, the spikes are pointing to the sky at the beginning, later they get longer and softer and behave like a cat’s tail. P. orientalis could have some hardiness issues sometimes.

The big clump of p.a. 'Magic' on the right, with purple spikes, and p.a 'Hameln' on the left, with white spikes. They brush my legs every time I walk to the pool and it's kind of creepy

The big clump of p.a. 'Magic' on the right, with purple spikes, and p.a 'Hameln' on the left, with white spikes. They brush my legs every time I walk to the pool and it's kind of creepy

Pennisetum alopecuroides is one of the toughest species. I have been told the best period to divide big clumps is early spring, just before they start emitting new foliage.

‘Hameln’ and ‘Magic’ are probably the best and most diffused selections. They last for almost all the winter under iced mist and snow and rain, they are pretty weedy though: I find new plants everywhere in spring but new plants are very easy to eradicate if not wanted or transplanted if you don’t mind testing new seedlings.

Pennisetum alopecuroides seedling under the birch

Pennisetum alopecuroides seedling under the birch

I brought from the previous house a particularly interesting seedling I now grow under the birch. It is a rather compact form of ‘Hameln’ but flowers are not as white, they’re kind of grey and it flourishes abundantly, spreading like a firework. It is very similar to p.a. ‘Woodside’ that I bought at the Oudolf’s nursery a couple of years ago, this latter is whiter though and I think this year it has been suffering the strange climate because spikes are unfurling pretty messy. It is one of my favorites BTW.

P.a. viridescens is a form I often  confuse with pennisetum villosum: they’re completely different but names sound similar and I mistake everytime. Viridescens (means something like ‘greenish’ I think) is rather similar to a grosser ‘Magic’, while villosum (means ‘furry’) is white, fat but very spiky, it glooms and I love it. I thought of writing this post because I’ve seen some beautiful pics of p. villosum in Christina’s hesperides garden blog and I feel bad because everytime I come home with a viridescens instead.

Pennisetum incomptum ‘Purple Form’ with nicotiana sylvestris, itea virginica and eupatorium 'Chocolate'

Pennisetum incomptum ‘Purple Form’ with nicotiana sylvestris, itea virginica and eupatorium 'Chocolate'

Quite similar to p. orientalis I have this p. incomptum. Taller and very straight but I like it. It’s not a self sower like alopecuroides but this one is really a spreader. It has its own space there anyway, so I don’t care. I really like this part of the garden even if it is rather young. Itea virginica turns a beautiful orange in fall and then it turns again a glooming purple. A couple of eupatorium ‘Chocolate’ stand besides a rubus thibetanus and a little rosa spinosissima ‘Single Cherry’. Few flowers but I like the mixture of foliages and colors.

Another nice one is pennisetum thunbergii ‘Red Buttons’ whose picture I’ve already posted earlier this season

Pennisetum thunbergii 'Red Buttons'

Pennisetum thunbergii 'Red Buttons'

Very rounded flowers, early flowerer and interesting foliage turning half red if exsposed to full sun.

I have to tell you about the ‘black sheep’ before the end of this post. There are two: p.a. ‘Moundry’ that I don’t love because the clumps are heavily packed with larger medium green foliage, it flourishes very late in the season and the flowers are too dark and cmouflage with other browns the garden is already fulfilled by october, so nothing special. Another one I’m mad at is p. ‘Gold Stricht’: it is a very short form, with greenish withe spikes. Now I have great expectations from grasses with a german name. I suppose they have been breeded in very austere nursery in Germany, by very austere german breeders, instead I have a fussy pennisetum that hasn’t been thriving enough this summer and now is producing some flowers over a pretty mangy foliage: Unkraut, raus!

Other pennisetum I don’t grow belongs to the setaceum’s selections. They’re not hardy at all in northern Italy wet winters and they’re expensive too so I never risk.

This is all I have experienced till now with this beautiful grass.

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7 thoughts on “About Pennisetum

  1. Thank you alberto for the ping back and also a really interesting post about pennisetums. As you’ll have already noticed, my garden has lots of grasses; I love them!, but last autumn I planted some P. mouldry, I am already disappointed buy he foliage which seems positively weed-like and shows no signs of any flowers yet. So I am interested that you have come to the same conclusion. I will try as many of the others as I can find as most seem to enjoy the soil and conditions in my garden. Christina

    • Being the latest flowerer Moundry is even the long lasting during frost but I reckon other varieties have much more to give than this.
      I think you have a better drained soil than mine and maybe a milder climate but there are many analogies between our gardens, pennisetum are very adaptable too. I think ‘red buttons’ is the most particular I own.

  2. Wonderful discussion of your beautiful grasses. I will have to go through it again and take notes for when I visit nurseries. Especially I will avoid the ones you are mad at. (I get mad at plants sometimes too.) Your grasses all seem graceful and varied. You are creating a very special garden!

  3. O dear, just when I’m trying to get rid of my grass, you are starting to convince me to buy some. That ‘Woodside’ looks great – but I bet the wind and the rain in Scotland would mess it up, really quickly.

    • Actually pennisetums like to drink (don’t know if they like to soak though), they’re very adaptable to different conditions like most of grasses. Woodside would be the right name to test on you garden, wouldn’t it? 🙂 Anyway in sweeping spaces like yours I recommend Hameln and Magic. Spikes are beautiful when covered on raindrops or frost.
      This is a Moundry covered in snow and frost on my previous garden:

  4. Pingback: About Miscanthus | AltroVerde

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