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Ornamental Grasses Demystified

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Having trouble choosing the perfect ornamental grass for your garden design?

Choosing the perfect ornamental grasses for your garden can be challenging for a number of reasons. In fact, while some plants may have the word grass in their name, they aren’t actually grasses.  Instead, they may be sedges, rushes, lilies or any number of other non-grass plants. And, while there’s a grass or grass-like plant to fit just about any environmental garden challenge, determining the right one for your spot may be overwhelming.
Black Mondo ornamental grass

That ornamental grass you love may not actually be a grass!

Often the plants we refer to as an ornamental grass are actually something very different. For instance, Black mondo grass is actually more closely related to asparagus than it is to grass! While it has the fun texture of an ornamental grass, this Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ is more like a scrappy lily than a grass. But, it’s a great grass-like garden design selection. That’s because of its unique black coloration and sweet little purplish flowers. Plus, it spreads slowly in the garden. And, it tends to play nicely with other plants

In the world of grasses and grass-like plants, there’s much to choose from.

  • Some ornamental grasses and grass-lookalikes are evergreen.
  • And, some have showy flowers.
  • Plus, some need deep shade.
  • And other grasses want hot, dry sunlight.
  • Many like it soggy — seasonally or always.
  • Yet many other grasses will rot in wet.
  • And, many even popular ornamental grass look-alike can be weedy and even invasive.

So, how to choose the right ornamental grass for you garden design?

First, there’s a great saying if you aren’t sure what exactly a “grass” really is.

Sedges have edges. Rushes are round. Grasses are hollow up from the ground/have elbows down to the ground.

While this old saying may be helpful…

It isn’t always going to help you categorize every plant you’re evaluating.

For example:

We had to identify a grassy plant growing in our pond. That’s because we thought it might be potentially problematic. So, identifying it was our first step. And, to do that we began observing.

Because it was living happily in the pond, the plant clearly thrives in very wet conditions. And, that’s a commonality for many rushes and sedges.

Plus, it appeared to have flat leaves with edges, which indicates a sedge. And, it didn’t have a showy, lily-like flower. But, it blooms in clusters at the tips. And those blooms looked more rush than sedge.

So what could this plant be?

After doing some research…

We were able to determine this plant was some kind of rush. With that information in hand, we dug back into our resource library and were able to determine that despite having flat leaves with edges, this is indeed the native plant Juncus ensifolius, also known as the sword-leaf rush.

Flora in a pond

But one rush is not the same as all rushes.

The good news is the mystery plant in our pond is a native plant meant to live in our wetlands. And, much like plain old common rush, these will thrive in a wet garden design.

Junius effusus blooms

Finally, let’s not forget those true ornamental grasses!

True ornamental grasses come in many sizes and forms and environmental preferences. So, there’s one for every garden.

And, one of our favorites in Asian-influence gardens and shady spots is Japanese forest grass. While this ornamental grass will take some sun, it performs best when protected from hot, burning late day summer sun. And, this beauty is herbaceous.

If you don’t know what that means, join our online Academy, and we’ll teach you all about plant terminology and more..

This grass has a soft texture and golden brilliance that’s unbeatable. But, be forewarned: dogs and cats both love to chomp on it, but so far it appears our deer and wild bunnies aren’t interested in it at all!

Japanese forest grass & astilbe

2 comments on “Ornamental Grasses Demystified

  1. Garden Mentors on


    Thanks for writing in. Can you provide more information about this plant? The common name you’ve shared sounds lovely, but it isn’t enough for us to help us help you.

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