Maiden Grass, Miscanthus sinensis

September 7, 2021 Ebi Kondo , Associate Director, Curator of the Japanese Garden

Native to East Asia, maiden grass Miscanthus sinensis produces silvery tussles in late August, which gives us a hint that the end of summer is coming, soon to be followed by the arrival of fall.

Growing up in Japan, I remember seeing them everywhere forming a field of grassland. When the strong fall wind blew over them in open spaces, it looked like the continuous waves in the ocean. Because of their toughness and availability in the market, maiden grass is a very popular ornamental grass that we can see everywhere in U.S. landscapes, such as in gardens, parking lots, even in the median of busy streets. 

‘Moring light’ is a popular cultivar with a fine texture of foliage and an early blooming habit. It is an ideal companion with chrysanthemums, asters and other fall flowering garden plants. (5-6 feet tall)

I planted a group of Japanese cultivars Yaku Jima’ around the Moon Viewing Deck in the Japanese Garden and enjoy their delicate and thin variegated foliage. (4-6 feet tall)

‘Zebrinus’, called zebra grass, is another popular cultivar with large leaves with spotted silver variegation that resemble tropical foliage. (5-6 feet tall)

Most maiden grass cultivars are easy to grow in the garden. They prefer a sunny spot with average garden soil and less than 1 inch per week of water after established. Because they usually grow 5 to 6 feet tall in short time from spring to summer, it is a great way to add height in your garden beds or hide something undesirable, such as an ugly shed or your neighbor’s broken car. Even after their vegetative parts are dead in late fall, maiden grass can be left in the garden during winter, as they sustain an attractive tawny color and stand up strong. Cut them back when they begin to look shabby.    

In their native habitat in Japan, Miscanthus sinensis can grow in poor soil, such as the rocky soil of Japanese mountains, as they can take up silicic acid from poor soil, which makes plants’ leaves and stems strong and hard.

That is why maiden grass is very flexible and can be used to lay the traditional thatched roofs of Japanese farmhouses. However, it is dangerous to work with this grass without waring thick garden gloves as they can cut your skin with the razor-sharp edges of their leaves and stems.

During the traditional “Fall Moon Viewing” 月見(tsukimi) in Japan, maiden grass 薄(susuki) plays a quintessential role. On the night of full moon in十五夜 (“Jugoya” means “fifteenth night”), people offer a bouquet of maiden grass to the full moon, showing their appreciation of a good harvest year.

You can see following cultivars in the Gardens:

  • Miscanthus sinensis ‘Moonlight’ in the York Street bed and Ornamental Grasses Garden.
  • Miscanthus sinensis ‘Yaku Jima’ in the Japanese Garden.
  • Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’ in the Ornamental Grasses Garden.

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