Groff's Plant Farm Images

Ornamental Grasses for Shade

Published: Thu Jun 22nd 2017

Ornamental grasses have a fine texture and unique form that blends gracefully with the plethora of daisies and other summer flowers. In the fall, their lovely seed heads play so well with sedums, asters and solidagos. Most often though, the switchgrasses (Panicum), Pennisetums, and Miscanthus are best suited for full sun. When planted in shade they tend to be floppy, not bloom as well and lose their variegation or reddish foliage.

For those that garden in the shade, do not despair! There are several choices of ornamental grasses to mix with your ferns, hostas and other woodland plantings.

If you are looking to go native, search no further than members of the sedge family. The ones that look most like lawn grass are Carex appalachica (Appalachian sedge) and Pennsylvania sedge. They both have a fine texture and medium green foliage, but Carex pennsylvanica spreads by rhizomes and will make a nice patch over time. If you are looking to add blue foliage to your landscape, C. laxiculmus ‘Bunny Blue’ and C. platyphylla (broadlead sedge) are natives with dusty blue blades.

Many sedges are native to Japan. The most handsome of this group are cultivars of Carex oshimensis. Often evergreen, with boldly variegated leaves in yellow (‘Eversheen’) or white (‘Everest’) edges these plants make an excellent focal point. They are a great addition as a “filler” component in a mixed shady container but are best planted into the ground in the fall.

If you have an especially damp area, the yellow foliage of sweet flag (Acorus gramineus ‘Oborozuki’) brightens up the shade. It does not tolerate dry soils, so save this one for the wet spots. It even thrives submerged in a pond.

We can’t talk about grasses for shade without mentioning the queen of woodland grasses, Japanese forest grass. Hackonechloa macra, grows two to three feet tall; the most popular forms have yellow or variegated foliage. They prefer moist soils, but will tolerate dry sites once established. They have a graceful arching habit and look especially lovely mixed with hostas, underplanting trees, or lining a walkway. They do slowly spread by rhizomes but not aggressively. This one is documented tolerate growing near black walnuts.

There are a few plants that look like grasses, but are actually members of the lily family. Liriope comes in a clumping form (Liriope muscari) that is best used to line a walkway or outline a design, and a spreading form (Liriope spicata) that makes a nice groundcover. Both have purple flower spikes in the fall, followed by black berries. I would not advise eating the berries, but they are not toxic to pets or people. The popular black Mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigriscens’) is also in the lily family. It spreads slowly and is topped with blush bell-shaped flowers in the summer. Darkest foliage is in part sun. This mixes well with yellow foliage plants such as coral bells or Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’.

For those of you with shady landscapes, embrace your conditions and try a grass that will thrive for you.