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New grasses enhance container gardens
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
Fiber Optic Grass and Strawberries and Cream Ribbon Grass will no doubt cause a stir when they arrive in Mississippi, so you will want to shop early.
These two new grasses are part of the impetus that Proven Winners/EuroAmerican Propagators has been giving toward using ornamental grass as a vital element in mixed containers. This rage may very well have started when they introduced their Fall Magic line of plants that included the dwarf sweet flags.
Three years ago, Fall Magic promotion brought us Ogon or Golden Japanese Sweet Flag. Then a year later in the Fall Magic promotion, they switched to a variegated variety, which might best be called White Japanese Sweet Flag.
The sweet flags are known botanically as Acorus gramineus and come to us from Eastern Asia. These look for all the world like grasses but actually are related to the philodendron. These grasses are ideal in large mixed containers or in the landscapes, particularly in areas that stay moist. The Ogon is my favorite because of the golden color combined with green variegation.
The Fiber Optic Grass will be much sought after like the variegated St. Augustine has been for the past couple of years. I believe that the 25- to 35-year-old gardeners will love it because of its high technology look. It indeed looks like it is a small clump of green stems with fiber optic bulbs on each end. The one that captured my eye was planted in a wire, hanging basket with petunias and Oriental Limelight artemesia, another great container plant.
In Proven Winners/EuroAmerican propagators literature, they state that Fiber Optic Grass is known botanically as Scirpus cernuus and is a zone 9 or 10 plant. My references suggest the name has been changed to Isolepis cernua and is cold hardy in zone 8. Cold hardiness may be irrelevant because it will look like a weed in the garden but a rare diamond mixed in seasonal container.
Fiber Optic Grass comes from Northern Africa and Southern Europe. Don't get frustrated when you can't find it. Your gentle nudging will encourage the garden centers to get it.
The other grass that I fell for in a mixed container was Strawberries and Cream Ribbon Grass (Phalaris arundinacea). Ribbon grass is a tough, competitive grass that can be invasive. I have seen some beautiful plantings in Mississippi.
One of the best was in Madison and featured ribbon grass with wood ferns and Louisiana iris. Notice all of these companion plants are moisture lovers and grow well in boggy soils. It is landscape hardy throughout the South.
Strawberries and Cream is green with creamy white variegation and strong blushes of rose pink. The mixed container planting that I thought was so striking combined it with various Babylon verbenas.
As you eagerly await the arrival of these two new grasses, do keep in mind variegated St. Augustine for containers. It is not cold hardy but still is superb when allowed to cascade over the rim of the container or grow intermingled with plants like Purple Heart or Blackie Sweet Potato.
All of the grasses I have mentioned are small, but don't forget to use grasses like purple fountain, Hameln dwarf fountain and black fountain as the center plant in large containers.