Perennial of the Month: Red Fountain Grass

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Pennisetum setaceum is a tender perennial fountain grass that is native to Africa, southeast Asia and the Middle East. It is a rapid-growing, clump-forming grass that produces arching, linear, narrow green leaves to 3’ tall and late summer flower spikes that rise above the foliage to 4’ tall. In warm areas where in may be grown as a perennial, it readily self seeds. In colder areas it dies in winter. Location means everything. Overall clump appearance is reminiscent of water spraying from a fountain, hence the common name.

Genus name comes from the Latin penna meaning “feather” and seta meaning “bristle” in reference to the flowers having long, feathery bristles.

‘Rubrum’, sometimes commonly called purple or red fountain grass, is a burgundy-red leaved cultivar that is not invasive under any circumstances because, unlike the species, it rarely sets seed. Showy, fluffy, burgundy-purple flowers in bottlebrush-like spikes (to 12” long) top flower stalks that arch upward and outward above the burgundy-red foliage clump in summer.

Uses

Specimen, group or mass. Attractive foliage and flower spikes of this ornamental grass provide excellent texture, color and contrast to borders, foundations and open areas.

Culture

Winter hardy to USDA Zones 9-10 where it is easily grown as a perennial in average, medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. Best performance is in full sun. In St. Louis, it will not survive winter and is typically grown as if it were an annual. Although species plants can be grown from seed each year new plants are typically purchased from nurseries each spring for planting in the garden after last spring frost date. Technically plants can be dug in fall, trimmed and overwintered in greenhouses or indoors in sunny cool areas, but many gardeners simply prefer to purchase new plants each spring. Plants may need some staking or other support and should be sited in areas protected from strong winds. Provide consistent water throughout the growing season.