Pennisetum

Pennisetum villosum

A family of gracefully arching perennial grasses with showy fox tail-like plumes, which provide a fountain effect above rounded mounds of arching green leaves. Adds movement and texture to borders.

Family: Poaceae or Gramineae
Botanical Name: Pennisetum (pen-i-say-tum)
Common Names: Fountain grass, feathertop

Foliage: Evergreen or deciduous, mounds of narrow arching, mid to dark green leaves.

Flowers: Short or long cylindrical feathery plumes or silky spikes.

Flowering Period: Early summer to mid autumn.

Soil: Well-drained soil (chalk, sand or loam). Acid, alkaline or neutral pH.

Conditions: Best in full sun. Plant in a west or south facing aspect, in a sheltered position.

Habit: Bushy, clump forming

Type: Tender perennial or annual.

Origin: Worldwide distribution.

Hardiness: Part-tender. Hardy only in mild and coastal regions.

Planting and Growing Pennisetum

Plant in mid spring in a sunny, sheltered position, in any well-drained garden soil. Drought tolerant once established. Compact forms make ideal container plants.

Suitable for mixed borders, prairie and gravel gardens. P. alopecuroides makes a good specimen plant while P. orientale and P. villosum appear spectacular when planted in drifts.

The flowers provide an attractive indoor decoration when dried. To dry, cut the flower plumes once fully developed and hang in bunches upside down, in a cool airy place.

Taking Care of Pennisetum

Water well in dry hot weather. Protect perennial plants during winter in mild regions by adding a generous layer of mulch in autumn. In colder areas, lift the plants in mid autumn and over-winter in pots in a cool greenhouse. Plant out again in spring, after all danger of frost has passed.

Naturalises freely and will often self-seed around, so it is usually best to remove flower heads before they fully ripen.

Pruning Pennisetum

Flowers can be left over winter to provide an architectural effect.

Cut back dead leaves of perennials at the beginning of spring to regenerate the plant.

Pests and Diseases

Generally trouble free

Propagating Pennisetum

Lift, divide and replant perennial species in mid spring, before growth starts.

Sow seeds of annuals in early to mid spring, under glass, at a temperature of 15-17°C (59-63°F). Pot up once seedlings are large enough to handle. Harden off and plant out in late spring after the last frost.

Popular Varieties of Pennisetum

Pennisetum alopecuroides (Chinese or rose fountain grass) forms a good specimen plant with arching sprays of grey-green leaves and tawny yellow or purplish flower plumes from early summer to mid autumn. Height to 3ft (90cm). For sale at Van Meuwen. Cultivars include:

  • 'Hamelin' produces 18in (45cm) sprays of fine green leaves topped with buff-coloured fluffy plumes that turn golden in autumn. For sale at Van Meuwen.
  • 'Lumen Gold' is a hardier, more compact variety with golden foliage in spring that turns lime-green in summer. Height 10in (25cm).
  • 'Woodside' is more floriferous than the main species.

Pennisetum Fairy Tails is an upright hardier form with soft pink to near-white flowers that turn biscuit shades, over a long season from midsummer. For sale at Crocus.

Pennisetum 'Fireworks' (Variegated Purple Fountain Grass) has deep burgundy purple variegated foliage that spills out just like water trickling from a fountain. For sale at You Garden.

Pennisetum macrourum (African feather grass) produces still upright stems with almost white pencil-thick flower heads in summer. Height to 6ft (2m).

Pennisetum orientale (oriental fountain grass) has hairy blue-grey leaves and bristly brown-green or silvery pink bottle brush-like flower spikes. Height to 36in (90cm). Grow as an annual in UK. A good number of cultivars are available.

Pennisetum setaceum (Tender fountain grass) is a tropical evergreen with arching narrow green foliage topped by sprays of rose-purple flower spikes in early summer to mid autumn. Height 2 to 3ft. Cultivars include:

  • 'Rubra' (Purple-leaved Fountain Grass) is a popular form with arching narrow burgundy-red leaves topped by sprays of long blooming rose-red flower spikes in summer. Needs a long warm summer to achieve good leaf colour.
  • Cherry Sparkler (PBR) has green and white variegated leaves with a blush of dark pink at the tips. Topped by soft, pink, flowering spikelets in summer. For sale at Crocus.
  • Sky Rocket (PBR) forms a graceful clump of slender, green and white striped leaves. Topped with soft panicles of silvery pink flowers in summer. For sale at Crocus.

Pennisetum villosum (Ethiopian fountain grass, feathertop) has the best fountain-like habit, with arching, mid green leaves and shaggy white or brownish purple flower spikes. Height to 2ft (60cm). For sale at Crocus.

Pennisetum x advena 'Rubrum' is a vigorous form with dark, burgundy foliage that arches to form a neat clump. Topped with long, fluffy, purple-red flower spikes in summer. For sale at Van Meuwen.