What is Fountain Grass?

Lauri Nawrot

When designing a garden, many people think about planting flowers. What they may not realize is that there are many non-flowering plants that can lend just as much beauty to their landscape. One growing trend is the use of fountain grass. Part of the Pennisetum genus, fountain grass is just one of many types of ornamental grasses, grown primarily for its interesting foliage.

Fountain grass can withstand drought.
Fountain grass can withstand drought.

Fountain grass, also known as Swamp Foxtail Grass, is a perennial bunch grass that originated in North Africa but was successfully introduced to the warmer regions of the United States. Fountain grass comes in a variety of colors. The ‘Rubrum’ is a purple species with bronze leaves and purple spikes. Another favorite is the Red Buttons Fountain Grass, characterized by its burgundy tinged foliage and red blooms. There is also Black Flowering Fountain Grass, which is distinguished by its dark green leaves, and black seed heads rimmed in purple.

While it is indigenous to mild climates, fountain grasses can be grown successfully in Zones 5-9. It is a drought tolerant plant and very easy to grow. Fountain grass requires fertile soil and a sunny location, although some light shade is well tolerated. As its name implies, fountain grass has a lovely arching growing habit, spreading nearly five feet across and 3 feet high. It can be pruned in late fall to go dormant over the winter, although some gardeners prefer to leave their plants intact to add interest to the winter landscape. If left to over winter, fountain grass should still be pruned in early spring to ensure a healthy growing season for the summer.

Fountain grass has become a favorite of gardeners and landscapers due to its versatility. It can be used alone as a specimen plant or planted in mass to create a beautiful display of texture and color. Fountain grass really shines in late summer to early fall when it throws up tall spiky plumes and its foliage turns to a sunny gold color. This makes it the perfect companion plant to other late blooming perennials like Autumn Joy Sedum and Black Eyed Susans.

It should be mentioned that there is some controversy regarding the planting of fountain grass. Commonly known as a garden thug, it is a prolific reseeder and can become aggressive and invasive in optimal growing conditions. Therefore, those living in warm, dry regions should take special care and consideration when making the decision to grow this plant or not.

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