Ornamental grasses cover a large part of the earth. Everywhere we go, we see them swaying in the wind. They are in fields, on roadside edges, and in our gardens. Hardy to zone 4, Panicum virgatum is a native prairie grass that is particularly useful in our landscapes.
Switch Grass takes it name from the swishing sound it makes when the wind blows. This is a sturdy grass that will remain standing throughout the winter unless buffeted by heavy snows, providing cover and food for birds during the winter. It will grow in full sun or light shade. Although most catalogs say that it will tolerate partial shade, it tends to become floppy in partial shade. While it does best with adequate moisture, as a prairie denizen, it can tolerate periods of drought or flooding.
One of the greatest assets of Panicum is its beautiful, relatively upright foliage that curves outward at the tips, giving it a vase-shaped appearance. Typically, the diameter is half of the height. Until bloom, the plant will be approximately one to two feet shorter than when in bloom.
There are two main groups of Panicum: the blue ones and the red ones. The foliage of blue Panicum is steel-blue and its inflorescences are a pale golden yellow. The foliage of red Panicum is burgundy and its inflorescences are a pale pink. Both are lovelyand provide textural contrast with almost any type of perennial.
Several cultivars of both types exist but the Perennial Plant Association has chosen P.v.’Northwind’ as its 2014 Plant of the Year.‘Northwind’ has a very tight habit with most of the inflorescences being situated in the middle of the clump instead of arching away from it and grows five to six feet tall. At Northcreek Nursery in Pennsylvania, ‘Northwind’ was the only Panicum to remain standing during a hurricane in the late 1990’s.
I have used ‘Northwind’ to great effect in a xeriscape in Cleveland Heights. The grass stands as a visual barrier to the next door neighbor without the necessity of installing a fence. Once a year, the client scythes down the old foliage and inflorescences and the new foliage emerges shortly thereafter.
Like other grasses, Panicum is reliably deer resistant and is rarely impacted by insects or diseases. You will want to find a home for this special ornamental grass.