Designing with Japanese Blood Grass


The greatest fun in gardening comes from combining plants. Every plant has its own personality, but most are versatile characters that shine in a variety of roles. Moreover, it is often the degree of harmony or contrast in a group of plants that brings out their special qualities. In each installment in this series, we will choose a main character and put it together with different supporting casts. Some of the associations are tried and true; others are more exhilarating because they break the “rules.” All are plausible, marrying plants that enjoy the same general conditions and that thrive happily together without any bickering or bullying.


The first leading role is taken by Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’, also known as l. c. ‘Red Baron’ or, in the vernacular, Japanese blood grass. With its ruby-tinted foliage, it is one of the most striking of all ornamental grasses. Although it holds its 20-inch blades vertically, there is nothing stiff or awkward about its deportment. It has an informal air and a relaxed self-assurance as it ambles around and through neighboring perennials.

Japanese blood grass comes into its own during the summer months, reaching a lush crescendo in August and September, when its blades are fully developed but before their tips start to dry out. It spreads slowly by surface rhizomes, and is easily propagated by division in spring. Moist, fertile soil and full sun produce the most robust growth. It’s hardy to USDA Zone 5.

This is a simple yet dramatic combination in which the two components perfectly balance each other. Other elements would be superfluous and in danger of detracting from the structural counterpoint of the blood grass’s slender verticals against the thick horizontal layers of the sedum.

The colors of the grass and sedum foliage are close, but the disparity between their textures gives them a zest often missing in monochrome plantings. The leaves of the sedum are dense and matte, absorbing light to make their color completely solid. In contrast, the blades of the grass are thin and translucent, alive and generating energy, made even more zingy by the occasional hint of green. The sedum’s flower adds another textural element, as though a passing formation of tiny pink cumulus clouds had descended and settled over the miniature landscape.

Supporting Cast

Every so often a plant comes along that knocks spots off its predecessors. Sedum spurium ‘Dragon’s Blood’ (Zone 4) has only been around for a couple of years, but its superiority is undeniable. Its dark presence is felt for a full six months, becoming steadily more noticeable until early fall, when its 18-inch stems play host to blobby flowers of deep rosy red. The color of stems and leaves is rich enough to be called crimson, dark enough to be called black. Not only is this an exciting plant, but it has a strong constitution, with each stem perfectly poised to show its best side.

As with all thespians, sympathetic lighting is crucial. Although its crimson blades are distinctive under ordinary circumstances, when it is backlit early in the morning or caught in the sun’s low rays at the end of the day, the effect is breathtaking. H

For sources of plants featured in this article, turn to page 122.

Combination 3

Blood grass with Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora ‘Citronella’

This show-stopping association succeeds by combining simple contrasting elements that nonetheless serve to enhance each other. Although the color trio includes two strong primary colors-red and yellow-they blend happily because of the large amount of green. The variety of texture and shape-from the rough, oval rudbeckia leaves to the smooth blades of the grass and the fans of crocosmia foliage-provides an interesting backdrop for the flowers. The linear quality of the grass is dose to that of the crocosmia leaves, although the latter are broader and plain green, and this contrast makes the crimson blades flicker through the planting. The flat plates of the big, bold, yellow daisies, accented by their raised black-velvet cones, are simple and obvious in comparison to the elegant spires of the slender-stemmed crocosmia, with its golden, lilylike flowers.

A pleasant addition to this group would be the annual rudbeckia strain called ‘Rustic Dwarfs’, in rich mahogany and gold. They are easily raised from seed and could be planted among the blood grass for a brilliant, if temporary, show.

Supporting Cast

Crocosmias hail from southern Africa. In good soil and with adequate moisture, the rhizomes quickly form colonies. Crocosmla x crocosmliflora ‘Citronella’ (Zone 6) has unusually clear yellow flowers with no hint of orange. The flowers are dainty and the petals rounded. In parts of the country colder than Zone 6, it will be necessary to lift the corms before heavy frost. It’s possible to make a virtue out of necessity here, for lifting and dividing crocosmias annually or biennially is the best way to ensure quality blooms. Only the top corms of the “necklace” that constitutes the plant’s typical subterranean growth should be retained. These can be potted up in loam-based compost or overwintered in trays of barely damp peat. Plant the corms out the following spring. Early growth is sometimes singed by early frost but almost invariably recovers.

Combination 2

Blood grass with Berberis thunbergii ‘Rose Glow’ Epimedium x versicolor ‘Neosulphureum’ Pseudowintera colorataSaxifraga fortunei ‘Rubrifolia’

This association relies almost exclusively on foliage, and will provide months of uninterrupted interest. Harmonious repetition of color-as in the crimson edges of the pseudowintera, picked up by the wine-colored grass-helps create a tranquil composition. Despite the fact that most of the plants in the composition have small leaves, there is no feeling of fussiness. If you wanted to introduce a variation in scale, a clump of rodgersias would be effective.

Although the focus here is on foliage, the epimedium and saxifrage create an extra diversion with their floral interludes. The epimedium flowers at the very beginning of the growing season, and the saxifrage at the close. More flowers could be introduced by underplanting the group with snowdrops or pale lemon narcissi, such as the lovely heirloom ‘W. P. Milner’.

In winter, when the blood grass retires underground, the epimedium and pseudowintera-both evergreen-will develop a more burnished look to their leaves. (Note: Berberis thunbergii is considered invasive in several eastern states, particularly in the Upper South.]

Supporting Cast

Berberis thunbergii ‘Rose Glow’ [Zone 4] makes a small, fairly compact deciduous shrub. Its purple leaves are marbled with pale and deep pink.

Epimedium x versicolor ‘Neosulphureum’ (Zone 5) is one of the toughest of these stalwart, ground-covering plants. Its exquisite pale yellow flowers are produced in April, and appear to best advantage when the old foliage has been removed.

Pseudowintera colorata (Zone 8) is a small, slow-growing shrub from New Zealand, happiest in humus-rich, neutral to acid soils. Its coloring is unique: creamy-green leaves speckled with pink and crimson. In winter the leaves assume richer crimson coloring. In parts of the country colder than Zone 8. you could keep the pseudowintera in an attractive pot and simply leave room for it among the other plants.

Saxifraga fortunei ‘Rubrifolia’ (Zone 6) is a fleshy-leaved, herbaceous woodlander from Japan. The undersides of its bronze leaves are a particularly striking red. Needs protection from early frost.

Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii (Zone 4) is a North American prairie plant that makes bold clumps with lush, basal foliage; the strong, branching flower stems need no support. Each plant produces scores of flowers, green at first, becoming bright chrome yellow. The plant can be propagated and rejuvenated by lifting and gently pulling it apart in spring or fall. The new vigorous chunks around the circumference of the clump should be replanted and the tired central core discarded.

Combination 4

Blood grass with Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ Heuchera ‘Plum Pudding’ Potentilla nepalensis ‘Ron McBeath’ Rosa ‘The Fairy’

Here the blood grass brings a dramatic edge to a pretty, “cottagey” planting. The rounded growth habit of the potentilla and the rose are in direct contrast to the pronounced verticals of the grass. The ceiling of the horizontal cornus branches is at right angles to the uprights of the blood grass, creating a symmetrical framework for the more amorphous plants. Because the grass weaves its way through the planting, the impression is not at all regimented.

Other floral additions could make this rich combination even richer. Papaver orientale ‘Perry’s White’ would make a dramatic appearance in early June and then gradually disappear. Various astrantias would also fit in beautifully. The cream-and-green leaves of Astrantia major ‘Sunningdale Variegated’ would bring bright splashes of light, repeating the coloring of the cornus, while A. major ‘Roma’ has lovely deep pink flowers that marry perfectly with the flower color of the potentilla and rose. The addition of wine-colored astrantias or the crimson of the dainty pompoms of Knautia macedonica would reiterate the color of the grass.

Supporting Cast

Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ (Zone 5) is a slow-growing small dogwood from Asia whose cream-margined leaves create a delightful impression of airy levity. For many years it can be treated as a shrub and underplanted with gentle, low-growing perennials. It is particularly renowned for its layered growth, which has earned it the nickname “wedding cake tree.”

Heuchera ‘Plum Pudding’ (Zone 4) is one of the best of the ever-expanding group of heucheras released by Dan Heims of Terra Nova Nurseries. It makes a low, dense mound ideal for interplanting among taller herbaceous subjects. Its leaves are dark purple but are rendered brighter and more reflective by a mosaic of silver that becomes more pronounced as the summer progresses.

The recently introduced Potentilla nepalensis ‘Ron McBeath’ (Zone 4) is a statwart herbaceous plant selected by its namesake, a renowned alpine expert, for its neat habit and longevity of flower production. Even without deadheading, the deep pink flowers appear from May till October.

Popular since its introduction in 1932, Rosa ‘The Fairy’ (Zone 4) is a pretty double pink rose whose flowers are held in loose bunches. When well pruned it is extremely floriferous, and if deadheaded meticulously will produce new flowers into the fall.

Combination 5

Blood grass with Euphorbia mellifera Kniphofia ‘English Hybrids’ Scabiosa atropurpurea ‘Chat Noir’

This is a jungly grouping with a strong emphasis on pattern. The euphorbia sets the tone—its smooth, elongated leaves, with their white midribs, look like something out of a painting by Henri Rousseau. The blood grass moves gently in the wind, giving glimpses of the kniphofia and the dark, velvety pincushions of the scabious, giving an almost cinematic quality. The small-growing ‘English Hybrid’ kniphofias have neat foliage that doesn’t overpower the blood grass. A larger kniphofia, such as K. rooperi, would look stunning here with the euphorbia as a backdrop, but the blood grass would be overwhelmed. One solution would be to place tall terra-cotta pots of the blood grass strategically within the border.

In areas too cold for Euphorbia mellitera, one of the hardier spurges, such as E. palustris, could be substituted. Although they are deciduous, their foliage often assumes an array of fiery colors as fall progresses—a fine match for the flamelike growth of the grass and the last “torches” of the kniphofias.

Supporting Cast

Euphorbia mellifera (Zone 8/9) is commonly known as honey spurge for its deliciously scented flowers, which are visually somewhat insignificant; the evergreen foliage, however, is superb. In a sheltered spot it can make five to six feet of growth in each direction.

The ‘English Hybrids’ kniphofias (Zone 6/7) are a seed strain producing dainty red-hot pokers in pale shades, mostly blends of coral and cream. Kniphofias prefer an open, sunny site with plenty of moisture during the growing season. Kniphofla ‘Jenny Bloom’, with refined spires of peaches and cream, or Beth Chatto’s ‘Little Maid’, in palest primrose, would also fit the bill in this combination

Scabiosa atropurpurea ‘Chat Noir’ (annual) is one of the new seed strains of this richly colored scabious. Growth is rapid, and plants from a spring sowing will be in full flower by midsummer. Although it may survive a mild winter, it is easier to keep going from lateral cuttings or seed.

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