Want an ornamental grass that is colorful, elegant, easy to grow, perfectly hardy in your area, puts up with most types of soils, and doesn’t need much maintenance?
Well, look no further. Panicum ‘Shenandoah’, or Red Switch Grass, as it is commonly called, has it all.
Click on the picture for larger view
Here is a plant that makes a stunning display for a remarkably long time, from mid-summer all the way through to late autumn. And, what's more, it will even extend its presence well into the frigid depths of winter!
In spring, the foliage emerges just like any other upright growing ornamental grass. The leafy clumps sprout spiky, mid-to-dark green leaves that are really pleasant looking. Then, in summer (usually late June with me), the magic starts to happen. Slowly, the tips of the leaves start to take on attractive shades of red. As the days wear on, this color intensifies and spreads through the outer leaves, gradually passing from burgundy, through tints of garnet, to deep-dark maroon.
This slowly developing crescendo of wine colored foliage is unmatched by any other hardy ornamental grass. At the same time, the flower panicles lengthen, and slowly puff out above the leaves, showing off pinkish, feathery plumes that change as they mature, turning to deeper shades of red and eventually maturing to silvery-gray.
The result is a display that is colorful, very long-lasting, ever-changing, stylish and elegant.
Some of the older varieties of switch grass become tall and floppy. Not this one! Of all the varieties we have grown over the years, this is the shortest, most compact and, I think, the sturdiest - which is great, because it means no bothersome staking or tying.
The height depends a little on the fertility, soil conditions and light conditions. In rich, fertile soils, with plenty of summer moisture present, it may stretch up to about 4 feet. But in most gardens, in average conditions, it is going to around 3½ feet. In drier conditions, it may even run closer to 3 feet tall. This is an ideal size: large enough to make impact, yet small and compact enough to fit in easily in most gardens.
Panicum ‘Shenandoah’ is a non-invasive variety developed from a native species Panicum virgatum, so it is perfectly suited to our conditions. Plant it in a sunny position and just follow the planting and watering instructions on the plant tag. You will find that it is easy, adaptable and very rewarding to grow.
It isn't fussy about soil conditions either. Like most plants, it performs best in fertile loamy soils. But if it has to, it will tolerate a wide range of soil types: from boggy, clay or moist sites to sandy seashore ones. It will even tolerate periods of neglect at times, too.
With a plant this good, there are many places where it can be used effectively. My favorite is to see it standing proud as an accent plant amongst low ground cover. This could be a low spreading carpet of annuals, perennials or evergreens; the shapely habit and burgundy and claret tints contrast wonderfully with colorful spreaders.
I have seen it used very successfully in gravel, boulder, dry stream and rock gardens - places where the textural qualities of the foliage look fabulous against the stone background.
Once established, it is a “toughie”, a zone 4 plant that is sometimes used in inhospitable places like roof gardens, balconies or alongside driveways - locations where the drought and wind tolerant qualities would be impossible for many plants.
Since the original species thrives alongside the ocean in coastal areas, it is useful in maritime locations, where its tolerance of salt spray and blustery conditions come in handy. Inland, it might be worth trying where road salt and turbulent wind from passing traffic proves difficult.
For better growing conditions, try them in beds and borders, where the upright habit and airy “see through” flower stems can be seen to advantage. I love to see them backlit at night - the silhouettes and gently moving shadows bring an extra dimension to the garden and are especially fitting at Halloween. If you like cut flowers from your own garden, and enjoy making flower arrangements, you will find that Panicum ‘Shenandoah’ is marvelous. They can be used either fresh or dried.
Finally, small birds adore the seed heads. Since this variety is developed from a native species, it is wonderful for placing in wildflower meadows and natural style gardens.
It was developed and introduced by Dr. Hans Simon, at his nursery in Marktheidenfeld, in central Germany.
He, is a highly regarded plant expert with an “eye for a good plant”. When he started his commercial enterprise, he collected plants from all over the world. He carefully tested and rated the best forms, selecting those that stood out as superior performers and in particular those that would be suitable to both public and private garden sites.
Ornamental grasses are very popular in Germany. They are widely planted in all sorts of locations. Over the years, many excellent varieties have originated there, including some panicum cultivars that develop red coloration in their foliage.
Dr. Simon was fond of these. He especially liked the form Panicum virgatum 'Hänse Herms'. While propagating it, he selected a seedling that was shorter and more compact and had improved color in its leaves. Testing and trials revealed that it was a considerable improvement over existing cultivars. He decided to name it and introduce it to gardeners, sending plants to nursery friends in France and here in the U.S.
In choosing the name, he decided that since panicums are native to America, the new variety should have a name that represented its origins, so he named it Shenandoah, after the valley in Virginia where several species naturally grow.
This outstanding variety has received numerous awards and accolades, most notably the Mérites de Courson in 2003. Nominated plants are voted on by a committee of distinguished plant experts and only those with extraordinary and improved garden value are selected for the award. This prestigious French honor is similar to the Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society in Great Britain.
As you can tell, we think a lot of it too. We offer it as one of our Garden Splendor® Gold Medal Selections. Only varieties that are exceptional performers make it into this category.
If you would like to find out more about ‘Shenandoah’ or any of the other ornamental Panicums we offer, check out our Garden Splendor® Encyclopedia. Then come in and see for yourself why Panicum ‘Shenandoah’ deserves a prominent place in your garden.
For a fuller idea of what I have been talking about, click here, for a slide show of Panicum ‘Shenandoah’.
Until next time, enjoy your Gardening – it's good for you.