Native to East Asia, Miscanthus sinensis, or maiden grass, produces silvery tussle-like flower crusts in late August, which gives us a hint that the end of summer is coming, soon to be followed by the arrival of fall.
Growing up in Japan, I remember seeing them everywhere, forming a field of grassland. When the strong fall wind blew over them in open spaces, it looked like the continuous waves of the ocean.
In native habitat in Japan, Miscanthus sinensis can grow in poor soil — such as the rocky soil of Japanese mountains — as they can uptake silicic acid from poor soil, which makes the plant’s leaves and stems strong and hard. That is why maiden grass is very flexible and can be used to lay the traditional thatched roofs of Japanese farmhouses. However, it is dangerous to work with this grass without wearing thick gardening gloves, as it can cut your skin with its razor-sharp edge of leaves and stems.
During the traditional Tsukimi — fall moon viewing — in Japan, maiden grass plays a quintessential role. On the night of the full moon during Jugoya — the fifteenth night — people offer a bouquet of maiden grass to the full moon, which shows their appreciation of a good harvest year.
Because of their toughness and availability in the market, maiden grass is a very popular ornamental grass that we can also see everywhere in U.S. landscapes, such as in gardens, parking lots and even in the median of busy streets.
At the Denver Botanic Gardens, you can see the popular cultivar, morning light. It has a fine texture of foliage and an early blooming habit. It is an ideal companion to chrysanthemums, asters and other fall flowering garden plants.
The Denver Botanic Gardens’ Grass Garden includes zebrinus, also called zebra grass. This is another popular cultivar that has large leaves and spotted silver variegation which resembles some tropical foliage.
I planted a group of Japanese cultivars called Yaku Jima — which has delicate and thin variegated foliage — around the moon-viewing deck in the Japanese Garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Most maiden grass cultivars are easy to grow in the garden. They prefer a sunny spot with average garden soil and less than one inch per week of water after established. Because they usually grow 5-to-6 feet tall in the short time from spring to summer, it is a great way to add height in your garden beds or hide something undesirable, such as an ugly shed. Even after their vegetative parts are dead in late fall, maiden grass can be left in the garden during winter — or until it begins to look shabby — as they sustain an attractive tawny color and stand up strong.
Ebi Akiyoshi Kondo is an associate director of horticulture at the Denver Botanic Gardens and curator of the gardens’ Japanese Garden
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