August 27, 2019 | Kevin Williams, Horticulturist

For this walk we’ll stay outside of the Gardens’ gates, exploring the gateways to the Gardens instead. The streetscapes of Denver Botanic Gardens are often overlooked, or passed right by, however receive just as much curation and care as any other space that we steward. We strive to create a welcoming and immersive experience even at the edge of our realm, communicating our ideals and aesthetics to all our visitors, whether they come inside or not. One way we do this is through the extensive use of grasses in our landscape.

Grasses and grasslands are extremely important to the Gardens, and as such, are well represented in the collections. Denver lies on the western edge of the North American shortgrass steppe, a biome that has produced many popular ornamental garden grasses. Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) all originate in the short and tall grass prairies of North America. These grasses, like many others from around the world, have adapted to the intense conditions of a steppe environment. Their growth points are located below or at the surface of the ground to provide protection from extreme temperatures. Their leaves are long and narrow, limiting surface area and conserving water. Their roots grow deep, tapping precious and hard-to-come-by moisture.

Walking through a field of grasses is like swimming through an ocean – you float in a different world, somewhere between the earth and the sky as the countless blades dance and undulate in the invisible energies of the world. There are layers of life that exist all around you, often unseen, nurtured by a thick, persistent environment.

  • Start your tour on the east side of York Street by the pedestrian entrance to the parking garage. As you walk north on the sidewalk, glance across the street at the Celebration Garden to see the pillow-soft forms of Hameln dwarf fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Hameln') and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis).
  • Looking west, see the massive earth berm of The Colorado Garden Show Promenade Garden that we call the “West Wedge.” Looking up the hillside notice two very popular landscaping grasses, noteworthy for their showiness and long-season forms, being used to stunning effect. The tousled pink mass of the Karley Rose fountain grass (Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’), runs south to north, bordered on its upper limits by the highly structural and ubiquitous Karl Foerster feather reed grass (Calamagrostis × acutiflora 'Karl Foerster').
  • Continue walking north and turn east on 11th Avenue. Past the row of white ash begins the Josephine streetscape, a garden space that simulates a hypernaturalistic grassland. To your left are pink diaphanous sprays belonging to the Undaunted® ruby muhly (Muhlenbergia reverchonii 'PUND01S') emerging from the fall meadow.
  • Turn right at the corner and you’re beckoned south by a tall grassland turning shades of red, blue, purple and gold. Three forms of prairie switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’, ‘Hot Rod’ and ‘Prairie Sky’), Indian Steel Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans 'Indian Steel'), Windwalker® big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii 'PWIN01S') and Twilight Zone little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium 'Twilight Zone') are all interplanted to create a diverse and undulated landscape.
  • As you continue walking south, look to the top of the large earth berm we call the “East Wedge.” Towering above all is Cloud Nine switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Cloud Nine’), an almost nine-foot-tall selection of switchgrass with golden fall foliage. Also, notice the long-plumed Peruvian feather grass (Stipa ichu) nestled up against the edge of the parking garage, dancing in the breeze of the passing traffic. The little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) has lost its summer moisture and chlorophyll and now stands tinged with purples and reds while its seed heads catch the low autumn light.
  • Continue walking south and encounter Morning Light maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’) a selection with silver leaf variegation and wine-colored seed heads, lighting up a rather shady corridor.
  • Turn right and take a shortcut up the stairway to the upper level of the parking garage. Notice the large planters flitting with seedheads of blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) and the tufted flowers of moor grass (Sesleria 'Greenlee Hybrid'), softening the hard concrete and sandstone of the parking lot.
  • From here, with your sight attuned to the wonders of grasses, you can choose your own adventure and explore the Glorious Grasslands of Mordecai Children’s Garden or enjoy the endless spectacle of autumnal grasses inside the York Street campus.

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