Miscanthus are the queen of ornamental grasses. They have been an icon in Europe and North America for well over a hundred years. Introduced from Japan circa 1870, Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) and the famous wild gardener William Robinson (1838-1935) grew it as Eulalia japonica. More recently, Karl Foerster and Piet Oudolf have pioneered their use along with other grasses in naturalistic planting schemes.
The range expanded dramatically when the German plant breeder Ernst Pagels persuaded two of his plants to set seed at the same time under glass in the 1950s. The result of his work has provided us with some of the finest autumn flowering grasses available today. This also accounts for the large number of German names one battles to get ones tongue around!
So popular have they become that there are one hundred and twenty named varieties of M. sinensis currently available and more are being released yearly. Deciding which one or two to include in your garden is a tough decision.
Miscanthus sinensis ‘New Hybrids’ provide a multitude of Miscanthus cultivars with varying heights, leaf widths and bloom times. Some plants will be upright growing and others will have a cascading habit, also expect variation in colouring.
Miscanthus sinensis forms handsome clumps of deep green foliage. Its upright stance and elegant habit have a year-round presence. While its texture and movement in the wind is interesting throughout the summer, the seed heads of autumn are undoubtedly it most outstanding ornamental feature. It is a warm season grass so it gets going slowly in the spring with the flower stems appearing near the end of summer. The flowers open at the top of a tall stem that rises from some of the leaf axils. When mature, the plant is topped with large silky plumes throughout autumn and winter and into early spring.
Miscanthus sinensis is one of the best tall grasses for a winter garden, adding structure and interest they will provide airy, plumed seed heads that endure from August until late January or longer.
The plumes emerge in late summer to early autumn before fading to a silver-grey. Most stems will remain upright throughout the winter. In winter sunlight the seed heads provide a translucent veil and shimmer and glow in low light and the slightest breeze will add an extra dimension to the winter garden as well as movement. Use it as an individual specimen in small gardens or as a massed drift in larger spaces. Place it where the lowering sun can backlight the plants for the most spectacular effect.
Miscanthus sinensis tolerates a variety of conditions. It grows best in full sun and likes good soil and summer rain. Part sun to shady areas are also suitable, but growth and flowering may be diminished with less sun. Don’t tuck them away in deep shade.
The plants have a preference for moist soil, they are able to tolerate dry spells but are not tolerant of drought in high summer. Taller varieties are less impressive when grown on poor, dry soil.
Miscanthus is versatile from a design standpoint; it can be used as a specimen, for massing or screening, in large containers, or at the pond's edge. The plants can tolerate air pollution, making it a suitable choice for areas near roadways. It can tolerate water and is well suited for bogs and marshes.
In winter the seed heads shimmer and glow in low light. Plant this grass in a position where its winter interest can be enjoyed. The best position is where afternoon sun falls and they can catch the light.
Sowing: Sow in late winter to early spring or sow in autumn.
Miscanthus seeds can germinate in a large temperature range from between 10 to 32°C (50 to 90°F), although the ideal temperatures for rapid and consistent germination is 16 to 24°C (60 to 75°F). Germination usually takes from 1 to four weeks at these temperature but can take up to nine weeks once temperatures fall below 16°C (60°F).
Plant Miscanthus seeds in spring as soon as temperatures reach 10°C (50°F). The seeds can be sown in autumn but will most likely wait until spring to germinate. It is best to sow the seeds directly outdoors in a nursery bed, or better still, in pots kept in a sheltered position in the garden or in a coldframe. Sow the seeds on the surface of a free-draining, moist seed-sowing compost and cover with 3 to 4mm (¼ in) of vermiculite. After sowing, do not exclude light as this aids germination. Keep the surface of the compost moist but not waterlogged.
Once the seedlings are large enough to handle, take a small clump and put them all in a one-litre pot containing a gritty compost. Plants in containers should be looked after carefully and not allowed to stand in full drip trays. They will form a bushy plant and be ready to go into the garden in summer. After hardening off, plant out after all risk of frost. Grow in a position with full sun.
Miscanthus are very hardy so they can be planted out in the autumn, however late spring is the best time. The plant is not tolerant of drought, with too little water the stems will lodge, so in hot conditions water about once a week for the best growth until they are established.
Miscanthus grows in a nice clump and over time can grow to be large plants, but they do take at least three years to clump up to a decent size. For this reason many nurseries specialising in grasses recommend planting in threes and fives per square metre. Once the plants have grown, they can be dug up and thinned out to their required distance. Once grown a mature specimen needs a spacing of 60 to 90cm (24 to 36in). Give them room or divide the plants when grown. .
Like most ornamental grasses Miscanthus sinensis needs a spring tidy up, just before new growth starts. In early spring, as soon as new shoots begin to emerge from the centre of the clump, cut back all the growth, including the seed heads. When you cut back the old growth, be careful not to damage the new emerging shoots. Always take care when handling Miscanthus foliage, as the leaf blades can lacerate the hands.
Miscanthus sinensis does not self-seed in temperate areas. It can only produce seeds where summers are very hot and long.
Divide for vigour and to keep plants smaller every four years in late spring. Cut through small clumps with a knife. If you have much older, larger plants use a spade, go as deep as you can, about a foot is sufficient and slice into the clump. One large clump can provide a number of transplants. Be sure your planting hole has the soil loosened wider and deeper than the transplant will be set.
Bold masses of Miscanthus plumes give brightness to a room during the darkest weeks of winter. The plumes often do not come to their full beauty out of doors as the plants only finishes its growth late in October, and therefore the plumes do not have time to dry and expand. The closed and rather draggled-looking heads open perfectly in a warm room. Occasionally the uppermost leaf often confines the flower, and it does not seem to mature quite enough to come free of itself so should be taken off to release it.
Architectural, Naturalistic, Cottage/Informal Garden, Flower Arranging, Borders and Beds, Low Maintenance or Mediterranean.
Miscanthus is an herbaceous perennial grass native to eastern and south-eastern Asia, there are 17 species in all. They are found throughout most of China, Japan, Taiwan and Korea. The most important horticulturally is M. sinensis, which are grown for their grassy heads as well as than their foliage.
Introduced from Japan circa 1870, Miscanthus sinensis has been grown in gardens for over a hundred years. Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) and the famous wild gardener William Robinson (1838-1935) grew it as Eulalia japonica. They pioneered their use, along with other grasses.
The range expanded dramatically when the German plant breeder Ernst Pagels persuaded two of his plants to set seed at the same time under glass in the 1950s. So popular have they become that there are one hundred and twenty named varieties of M. sinensis currently available and more are being released yearly.
All varieties of Miscanthus sinensis form tight clumps and, although some varieties make large clumps, they all stay where you plant them. Do not be tempted to plant the evergreen Miscanthus transmorrisonensis, it will ramp through huge areas in all directions especially in hot, dry sites.
The genus name Miscanthus is taken from the Greek mischos meaning ‘stalk’ and anthos for ‘flower,’ referring to the spikelets.
The species name sinensis means 'of or from China' though the plant is found elsewhere in eastern Asia.
Miscanthus sinensis has so many confusing common names such as Maiden Grass, Silver Grass, Chinese Silver Grass, Silver Banner Grass, Zebra Grass, Elephant grass, Susuki grass and Eulalia Grass, that most people have taken to calling it by its actual real name of Miscanthus!
Miscanthus sinensis was formerly known as Eulalia japonica. Named after the French botanical artist Eulalie Delile (1800-1840), Eulalia is a genus of Asian, African, and Australian plants in the grass family.
When, in the 1950’s Ernst Pagels, the German Nurseryman, tricked two Miscanthus into flowering at the same time and crossed them it was the beginning of all the hybrids we have today. The two plants were M. gracillimus and M. ‘Silberfeder’. Pagels had to persuade miscanthus to set seed at his German nursery in Leer, close to The Netherlands, because in the Northern hemisphere miscanthus creeps into flower too late in the year because it is growing right at the limit of its range.
In the UK, Alan Bloom had both of the parent plants growing in his Island Beds at Bressingham and as he had always had a habit of collecting. In the mid 1980’s, his son Adrian Bloom was proactive in bringing new plants for trialling for garden-worthiness to Bressingham. The Pagels hybrids were amongst these. They were grown and looked at for a few years but their Nursery business could never really be convinced of them and so they eventually came back to Alan’s garden where they were ‘dotted’ around some of the beds. It was here that their true value was realised…providing structure, movement and late summer colour to the herbaceous display.
The plants were retained and the foundations were laid for developing a collection. More recently some breeding work has been undertaken to select for certain key features such as nodding flower heads and overall elegance of the plant. In due course some of these plants may make their way into cultivation if they can be shown to be an improvement on the varieties that are currently available.
The National Collection is held at Bressingham Gardens, Diss, Norfolk, IP22 2AB.
Opening Times: 10.30am to 5.00pm, April to October. Tel: 0044 (0)1379 688292
- Additional Information
Packet Size 50mg Average Seed Count 50 Seeds Seed Form Natural Seeds per gram 1,100 to 1,400 seeds per gram Common Name Maiden Grass or Eulalia Grass Other Common Names Chinese Silver Grass Family Poaceae Genus Miscanthus Species sinensis Synonym Formerly Eulalia japonica Hardiness Hardy Perennial Flowers Airy, plumed seed heads Natural Flower Time August Height 150cm (60in) Spread 75cm (30in) Position Prefers full sun