Pennisetum orientale — Fountain Grass
Pennisetum orientale is one of the most graceful of all ornamental grasses. Having originated in China, Southwestern Asia and Northern India, fountain grass is nonetheless perfectly suited to our Sonoma County dry-summer, Mediterranean climate. It is a mound-forming, densely tufted, deciduous perennial grass with upright or arching, narrowly linear green or gray-green leaves.
Its impact comes from the soft bristled spikelets in narrow panicles that resemble long bunny tails or bottle brushes that sway in the breeze. When lit from behind in early morning or late afternoon sun, the flower plumes positively glow.
The versatility of fountain grass makes it a good foundation plant or addition to mixed perennial beds. It partners beautifully with many drought-tolerant species, but is entirely satisfactory as a specimen with its long, arching inflorescences wafting above the foliage. It is also successful planted around a pond or along a dry creek bed, and is considered an easy-care container plant.
Pennisetum orientale begins blooming in June with a pinkish hue. As the year progresses, panicles slowly mature to a light brown and persist until frost. Foliage turns straw-colored in winter, giving this hardy grass almost year-round interest.
Fountain grass is best planted in full sun in well-drained soil. It appreciates some shade in the hottest microclimates and is both drought tolerant and deer resistant. It may be propagated by seed or by dividing the root mass, which widens each year and eventually requires some attention.
In January or February, plants should be cut very low, about three to four inches above the ground or even lower. To limit expansion, every few years divide in early spring just as the new growth begins to reappear. When planting or transplanting fountain grass, make sure the crown is not planted below the soil’s surface for this will cause it to rot.
After several years, the center of older mounds may naturally begin to die out. There are two solutions. To maintain the same broad clump, clear out the dead area and dress it with compost. New growth will quickly begin to fill in. Alternatively, use this opportunity to divide the outer circle into sections and replant.