GGW Plant Pick of The Month- Pennisetum

– Posted in: Garden Plants

Pennisetum glaucum ‘Jade Princess’

In search of inspiration I ventured to the Missouri Botanical Garden last week. In the back corner of the Trial Gardens at the Kemper Center I stumbled across a stunning new ornamental millet, Pennisetum glaucum ‘Jade Princess’.  This upright, mounded variety with chartreuse leaves and dark maroon, pollen-less seedheads reaches 36-48″H x 18-24″W. It is a must have annual for 2010!

I’ve selected the genus Pennisetum (specifically, varieties I have grown or intend to grow) to highlight as August’s GGW Plant Pick of The Month.

Pennisetum setaceum rubrum 'Fireworks'

Pennisetum setaceum rubrum ‘Fireworks’

Variegated Purple Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum rubrum ‘Fireworks’) was introduced in 2008 by Ron Strastko of Creek Hill Nursery. The variegation is a lovely combination of burgundy, hot pink and white. ‘Fireworks’ (foliage) reaches 24″H and is hardy in USDA zones 9-10. I’m growing it in the Gardens at the Bank of Springfield this season (shown above with Canna x generalis ‘China Doll’, Eucalyptus ‘Silverdrop’, Tithonia ‘Fiesta Del Sol’, Alpinia zerumbet, Cleome ‘Spirit Frost’ and Washingtonia robusta).

Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ with Canna x generalis ‘China Doll’ (background) and Helenium amarum ‘Dakota Gold’ (foreground)

Dwarf fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’) is a perennial favorite (hardy USDA zones 5-9). ‘Hameln’ forms an upright, dome-shaped mound about 24″H. Creamy flower spikes appear in late July. Foliage shifts from green to orange-bronze in autumn and finally to beige with the onset of winter. ‘Hameln’ combines well with caryopteris, coreopsis, sedum, rubeckia, aster, liatris, nepeta, and salvia.

If you are looking for an even more compact fountain grass try Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Piglet’. It is half the size of ‘Hameln’.

Pennisetum Zinnia

Pennisetum setaceum rubrum

Another favorite is purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum rubrum). This vigorous annual (hardy USDA zones 9-10) reaches 36-48″H x 24-36″W in one growing season. Burgundy foliage is topped with graceful, arching fox-tail like blooms. Rubrum dances with a gentle breeze. It is lovely combined with saliva, zinnia, rudbeckia, datura, eucalyptus, solenostemon, colocasia or verbena.

If your site requires a larger purple fountain grass try, Pennisetum setaceum ‘Burgundy Giant’ (4-5’H, with larger leaves). For smaller sites, try Pennisetum setaceum ‘Red Riding Hood’, a dwarf form reaching 24″H.

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Pennisetum glaucum 'Purple Majesty'

In my January 2009 post, Anchoring Vignettes with Tropical Foliage, I wrote of “successful” combinations built around lush foliage plants. Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Majesty’ was included for its strong vertical interest (4-5’H with flower stalks 12-14″ long). The cultivar’s burgundy foliage and seedheads are a perfect foil for hot- and cool- color palettes. ‘Purple Majesty’ is an All-America Selection Gold Medal winner (2003). Shown above with reseeding Rudbeckia hirta ‘Indian Summer’ and Helenium autumnale ‘Mardis Gras’.


Pennisetum messiacum ‘Red Bunny Tails’ (Image courtesy Proven Winners, LLC)

Bunny Tails Fountain Grass (Pennisetum messiacum ‘Red Bunny Tails’) is perfect for containers, adding height (24-36″H) and drama. The annual grass produces deep pink flowers that resemble rabbits’ tails and persist through the season.

Do you have a favorite Pennisetum? We’d like to hear about it.

If this is your first time visiting GGW Plant Pick of The Month and you’d like to participate, simply post your comments below and link to your own site where you’ve posted photos of Pennisetum varieties and comments about your experience working with the plant, successful planting combinations, etc.

Adam Woodruff

Adam Woodruff

Adam Woodruff has practiced garden design since 1995. He trained as a Botanist at Eastern Illinois University. Woodruff attributes his unique design aesthetic, naturalism with a twist, to early college exposures to a diverse range of plants and environments (collecting trips in local prairies, field excursions to bogs in Canada and treks through forests of the Northeast). He also maintained the campus greenhouse, where he fell in love with tropicals. In recent years, influences on his designs include travels abroad to Europe, Asia and the Yucatan peninsula as well as observation of the work of great plantsmen such as Piet Oudolf and Roy Diblik. Woodruff’s designs often combine grasses, prairie natives and perennials with lush tropical foliage and seasonal blooms. This harmonious blending of plant material that is not conventionally grouped together is the ‘twist’ that makes his style unique.
Adam Woodruff

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12 Comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Lotusleaf August 11, 2009, 6:53 am

The purple fountain grass contrasts beautifully with the orange flowers.

Thanks for your comment Lotusleaf. I agree!


Darla August 11, 2009, 10:20 am

Everyone of these are gorgeous!!

Hi Darla. Do you have a favorite Pennisetum?


Susie August 11, 2009, 1:26 pm

Beautiful photos as usual, what a find with the ‘Jade Princess’! I love them all, but the bunny tails is just a doll.

Thanks for your input Susie.


Helen at Toronto Gardens August 11, 2009, 3:49 pm

With a dry, shady garden, grasses have emerged as big gaps in my knowledge. The one thing I do know is that most of them require more sun and moisture than I can provide. These are lovely. I hadn’t realized there were so many different cultivars.

Thanks for your comments Helen. Have you considered varieties of Carex for your dry shade garden? Technically Carex is not a grass, it will however provide a grass-like presence.


David August 12, 2009, 10:54 am

I was surprised to see fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum) as the plant pick of the month. Fountain grass, is an aggressive, invasive grass and is listed on several states’ noxious weed lists which means it causes ecological and economic damage and must be controlled by law. Perhaps the variety of Pennisetum setaceum listed here is not aggressive or invasive, or in cooler and wetter climates they are not currently recognized as a problem, but it is irresponsible to encourage propagation of this species without warnings. In Hawaii and the southwestern US fountain grass has invaded a variety of habitats, displaced native plants and animals and alters the fire regime of the area to its favor. Annually lots of resources (dollars and labor) are spent controlling this species. There are plenty of native ornimental grasses or grass-like plants that would make a wonderful garden alternatives.

David. Thanks for your informative follow up. The varieties of Pennisetum setaceum highlighted in this post are annuals in my USDA zone 5 garden. The information you have provided will be helpful to our readers in warmer climates.


Garden Mad August 12, 2009, 6:28 pm

I do like this blog – I hadn’t registered these plants on my radar yet! But .. the P. glaucum varieties are a bit spooky – they look like fingers poking up through seaweed!!

Interesting observation! Thanks for your comment Mad.


Nicole August 13, 2009, 11:36 am

I bought a couple 3 gallon Pennisetum setaceum rubrum to use with my agaves- everyone loves these and they are quite easy. The variety sold here is sterile so there no setting of seed. Its the most popular ornamental grass on my warm, dry island. Of course it is perennial in our zone 9-10 climate.
I absolutely love the dramatic spikes of Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Majesty’ and the red bunny tails are so cheerful-now I must have these.

Hi Nicole. Thanks for your comments. I wish Rubrum and Purple Majesty were perennial for me in Illinois. It would save on our annual budget.


franniesorin August 15, 2009, 2:09 am

Inspiring post which makes me want to run to the closest nursery to see where I can find some of the varieties you photographed. Here in Israel, the use of pennisetums, although used prolifically, has been limited thus far to one variety. Fran

Hi Fran. Maybe you can be a trend setter in Israel and design with some new varieties of Pennisetum! Is access to stock an issue? Why only one variety in production?


Janet August 16, 2009, 8:58 am

Somehow I missed this post when it was first posted…going to bookmark it for future reference. I love pennisetums. Have Moudry, which is one that reseeds and can be a tad invasive. Bought Fireworks this spring and LOVE it! Have it in a container. Not hardy to my area so I may give it to a friend who has a green house come late fall. Have had Hameln and Little Bunny — really like the small ones as they are such a nice accent, similar in size to Liriope but love the plumes.

Hi Janet. Thanks for commenting. I tried Moudry as well. Lovely dark seedheads . . . with lots of viable seed. Needless to say its no longer in my garden.


Mr. McGregor's Daughter August 19, 2009, 2:20 pm

This is my first year growing Pennesetum. I put it in a container and failed to water it as faithfully as I should have. Sadly, the plant is not drought proof. It’s still alive, but looked much better when I watered it regularly.
I saw P. ‘Piglet’ for the first time last week. It is a very cute plant, and I think it might be happy in my garden – planted in the ground.

Thanks for sharing your experience with Pennisetum!


Peter Corbett April 16, 2010, 4:01 pm

Hi I am in England and I am desperate to get my hands on some Jade Pricess seeds and fireworks seeds. Can any of you guys recommend a place where I can order them mail order I only need half a dozen packets of each. Ordinary air mail is good enough.

Great blog and beutiful pictures. gets me fired up for the season ahead
Regards Pete

Why don’t you get in touch with the RHS? I would be surprised if they didn’t have them. And did you try Thompson and Morgan Seeds? Fran

Peter Corbett April 21, 2010, 3:45 am

Thanks for the response Fran I tried RHS plantfinder and T&M and most other seed merchants in the UK but cant find P. Jade Princess.
Regards Peter

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