In my garden: Miscanthus

Tough, handsome, stately and with almost year round presence, Miscanthus is the perennial for all seasons, and very nearly all reasons given its ability to thrive in a wide variety of conditions. Native to the Far East (principally China, Japan and Korea) the majority of species inhabit the fringes of moist woodlands and open, damp meadows. Miscanthus are such useful plants, so accommodating, tolerating most conditions from semi-shade to full sun and most soil types, too (except drenched bog, or very dry ground). But to value their utilitarian strengths is to damn them with faint praise, as these are among the loveliest of late season plants for the garden, especially prominent in winter and late autumn, having brought texture and colour to the garden from early summer onwards.

More than 100 years ago, Gertrude Jekyll used them well in the Great Plat at Hestercombe in Somerset, where strategically located clumps of Miscanthus sinensis Gracillimus create a repeated motif through the planting. But, despite advocacy by such a highly regarded gardener, it has taken decades for them to become more widely used. I suspect their neglected status was due to people not knowing how to use them well. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, they tended to be herded together, along with other grasses, into ghetto like ‘grass borders’, perfectly effective in their late summer pomp, but not exciting. Another unhelpful factor had been the older varieties’ shyness in flowering Miss Jekyll would have realised this, and would have used Gracillimus for its foliage more than its flowers.

But there are no such problems with modern Miscanthus varieties, thanks to the almost obsessive work of the late Ernst Pagels. From his nursery in Leer, on the border between Germany and Holland, Pagels bred dozens upon dozens of new hybrids, seeking out the best combination of attractive foliage colour and reliable flowering, together with form and growth habit. If you have ever wondered why so many have German cultivar names Rotsilber, Silberfeder, Ferner Osten and so on the chances are they were bred by Pagels.

The way to use all grasses is as a component in a planting, rather than as ‘special cases’ in monoculture plantings, and Miscanthus excels when given the chance to show off in the company of others. Early in the season, their foliage is an excellent foil for flowering plants, with a favourite combination being pure-white Kniphofia Ice Queen paired with M. Morning Light, a mid-sized (6ft–7ft) grass with very narrow foliage conspicuously marked with a silvery white, linear stripe.

The aforementioned Ferner Osten is a 6ft-tall late summer specialist, when its flowers, tinged with a metallic purple sheen, start to fade and its foliage becomes tinged with orange then dusky red. It looks wonderful with the tinted autumn leaves of  Liquidambar, Cornus, Oxydendron or Eunoymus, or the late blooms of a purple flowered Aster.  There are hybrids suitable for smaller plantings, too; Yakushima Dwarf is lovely, but my preference leans slightly toward Little Kitten, which attains no more than 3ft or so, spreading gently by rhizomes, as all Miscanthus do, to a similar width.

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It has attractive silvery flowers on one-sided awns that arch over very prettily I’ve used it with Cornus sanguinea Midwinter Fire and been very pleased with the combination of its cool silver beside orangey scarlet dogwood stems. Another great asset of Miscanthus is the variety of growth habits, from very upright to loose and cascading. Grosse Fontäne is a fine example of the latter, if sometimes a little too big (8ft) and blowsy, but it has a smaller sibling: Kleine Fontäne.

A mistake people sometimes make with Miscanthus is to plant them too closely together, rather like a drift of flowering plants, when what they yearn for is space around them so that each individual plant can be appreciated. Too many together can look like the front row of a rugby scrum. All grasses are best planted, or lifted and divided, in spring.  Use them to create punctuation and drama in the garden. Allow them to stand all through winter to enjoy their decline into straw coloured beauty, illuminated to perfection by the watery January sun. When their work is done, cut them back in early March to let the cycle continue.