Q&A: Ornamental Grasses for Shade

I love ornamental grasses, but all the ones I see at the garden center are labeled for sun. Will any survive in my shady landscape?

Answer: There are not many shade-tolerant ornamental grasses available. One to look for is Japanese forest grass, Hakonechloa macra. Usually you will find the golden form, ‘Aureola’, which makes a flowing mound. Though this grass is also listed as one for sunny areas, it resents full sun in the South and adjusts well to shade there.

You may also try river oats, Chasmanthium latifolium, sometimes called inland sea oats. This knee-high native grass occurs naturally in shade, often along streams. While a lovely, graceful plant, its effect is rather wispy—it does not make large clumps. It also reseeds vigorously, sometimes becoming a weed.

You may wish to investigate sedges (Carex), which are not true grasses but look very similar to them. Many of them tolerate or even require shade. They are generally smaller in stature, but many of them do make distinctively shaped mounds similar to some of the ornamental grasses.

Sweet flags (Acorus) are also grasslike in habit. The soft gold A. gramineus ‘Ogon’ is most commonly found. It likes shade, wet or dry. Both sweet flags and sedges make fine container plants. They can e used as companions for pansies in cool seasons and paired later with summer annuals.

Images courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder

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Looking for ornamental inspiration? Thinking about making your own prairie? Check out the following books: Ornamental Grasses for the Western GardenThe American Meadow Garden,  and Grasses and Bamboos

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