October Walking Tour - Ornamental Grasses in the Mile High City
By Hayley Cook, Horticulturist
This is the perfect time to visit the Gardens. There is a welcome crispness to the air. Unlike many other perennials, ornamental grasses are arguably most beautiful in the fall and winter, after they go dormant. Come to the Gardens (during a season that you might not normally), and take a walk. Ornamental grasses are scattered throughout the Gardens and will delight all of your senses; the familiar smell of grasses as they bleach and dry, the sound of their brittle stems and seed heads brushing against each other in a fall breeze, the various hues of their foliage and flower clusters, or ‘inflorescences,’ that catch the light and glow in the fall when the sun is lower in the sky.
As you enter the Gardens you are surrounded by beautiful ornamental grasses. Ahead is the Crossroads Garden which is softened with just a few grasses tucked in here and there. Enjoy the cool color of the blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens ‘Saphirsprudel’) and its striking contrast to the Indian feather grass (Nassella tenuissima) nearby. Each specimen is more vibrant because of the others’ proximity. Turn around and look back toward the Bonfils-Stanton Visitor Center, where there is a line of tall, golden maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’) flanking the northern glass and concrete facade of the building (pictured above right) … the overall effect is lovely. The grass softens the edge of the building while diffusing the reflected light as if the planting itself is backlit. Ornamental grasses make great planting material near buildings for many reasons - notably, they require less water than many plantings (so they won’t damage building foundations), are low maintenance and look fabulous next to structures.
Maiden grass (Miscanthus sp.) can be found throughout the Gardens (and not just right next to buildings or walls). One of my favorite examples is in the Japanese Garden ‘Shofu-en’ where the cultivar ‘Yakushima’ (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Yakushima’) is highlighted throughout the garden (pictured above left). The name ‘Shofu-en’ means ‘garden of the pines and wind’ and this grass was chosen because, although it is tough and will hold up through the winter, it bends and sways with the slightest breeze. This plant adds a subconscious element that strengthens the ambiance of a garden that is all about movement.
A Denver favorite is fountain grass (Pennisetum sp.) which comes in many different shapes and sizes. ‘Hameln’ dwarf fountain grass, (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’) is a popular grass here at the Gardens. There are many varieties of fountain grass that are not hardy to our climate and are often used as annuals, as is this red fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) found near the Hive Garden Bistro and fire pit garden. This grass grows quickly to make a bold statement in any garden but don’t get too attached to it, because it will not survive our Denver winters.
The last stop on this grass tour is the Rock Alpine Garden where I invite you to witness the airy brilliance of pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia reverchonii ‘PUND01S’ UNDAUNTED®, pictured above right). This late blooming, crowd favorite flaunts miniscule flecks of gold floating above tiny purple stems. The overall effect is a misty pink cloud, a beautiful addition to any garden and especially breathtaking in the Rock Alpine Garden right now.
Photos by Hayley Cook