Although they are commonplace in our gardens now it was only three decades ago that ornamental grasses first started to appear on garden centre shelves.  One of the very first varieties was Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum,’ also known as Purple Fountain Grass.  I distinctly remember receiving the first pots of these from a nursery in California back in the late 80’s.  One of our customers was dumbfounded that we would be selling something that looked like it was dug up from the side of the road and put into a pot!  Thankfully perceptions have changed.  In the August heat and September warmth Purple Fountain Grass is nothing short of spectacular, whether it’s in a container or mixed in amongst other plants.  The foliage has turned a soft burgundy tinge in the summer sun, and the buff purple flower plumes are dancing in the slightest afternoon breeze.  They really do give the appearance of a fountain flowing gracefully.  I’m a fan; I have six of them planted in various locations on my decks!


Pennisetum is a warm season grass, so typically you don’t see much growth until the heat arrives in late June and July.  Once temperatures rise it quickly expands to three feet tall and two feet wide, producing multitudes of beautiful soft purple plumes.  Plant in full sun for best colour effect, in average well-drained soils.  To many gardeners the only flaw with Purple Fountain Grass is that it’s an annual in our climate.  It won’t tolerate fall frosts below -5 deg. C before turning brown.  But it will be a star attraction in a late summer and autumn garden and even the frozen foliage looks attractive, especially when it’s encrusted with ice.


I typically put three plants in four inch pots into a large container by my front door in spring, with nothing else.  It’s amazing by mid-August.  But Purple Fountain Grass will compliment almost any annual you can think of as a “thriller” in the middle of containers.  They look especially wonderful with orange or yellow tones, and the burgundy colour really punches up pinks and whites.  Purple Fountain Grass has never met a coleus that it didn’t like either.  We’ve used them with great results in the display beds in front of the garden centre.  Plant in groups of three or more in beds so the effect of the foliage and flower plumes waving in the wind is multiplied.  It might be a one-year only fling, but you’ll be coming back for more next year once you’ve been introduced to Purple Fountain Grass.

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