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Plant Profiles

Skyracer molinia

molinia-arundinacea-skyracer-640

 

Finally: an ornamental grass for Fall.  Ornamental grasses are usually at their peak in the warm months.  Although some will carry their plumes into the Winter, the grass's foliage—often so colorful and energetically held over the Summer—usually turns a barely-acceptable tan by Fall, and is quick to adopt a hang-dog droop, too.

 

Molinia foliage, though, turns amber when the weather turns cool.  It's a warm woody color like polyurethaned plywood.  (I like the color of poly'd plywood.)  Partly because it was so notably low to begin with, when heavy Winter weather arrives the foliage doesn't collapse further nearly as fast as that of taller-foliaged grasses such as Miscanthus and Panicum.

 

And the airy panicles of Molinia continue to hold their own into Winter.  Only if there's ice and snow do they get pulled down.

 

molinia-arundinacea-skyracer-plumes-640

 

In Fall, then 'Skyracer' is better than ever.

 

Using it as I have, in the midst of the Red Garden beds, doesn't do it any favors, though.  The Red Gardens are more about warm-weather display, but more than any other of the main color schemes (Pink, Yellow, White, or Blue), Red relies the most on annuals and tropicals to achieve it.  So by the time the Molinia foliage has peaked in the Fall, all those annuals and tropicals have been pulled for the Winter.  There's a cruel amount of open dirt—meaning mud—surrounding this Molinia in the off-season.  Better, then, not to show you the wider shot, with the Molinia surrounded by the bare bed where the dahlias, cannas, and castor beans were.

 

 

Here's how to grow this exceptional ornamental grass:


Latin Name

Molinia arundinacea 'Skyracer', also M. litorialis 'Skyracer' as well as M. caerulea ssp. arundinacea 'Skyracer'.

Common Name

Skyracer moor grass

Family

Poaceae, the Grass family.

What kind of plant is it

Clumping perennial grass.

Hardiness

Zones 4 - 8, but sources vary.  I've seen listings of 5 - 7, 5 - 9, and 4 - 9.  Plant hardiness is almost always affected by its growing conditions.  See 'How to handle it' below, which could help you test 'Skyracer' at the cold end of its hardiness.

Habit

Mounding.

Rate of Growth

Fast.

Size in ten years

A clump four to five feet wide at the ground, and six to eight feet wide at the top.

Texture

The half-sphere of foliage is full, arching, and pendulous to the ground.  The many straight, thin flowering stems shoot up through the foliage, but their panicles are so spare that, instead of blocking anything in back of them, they create a kinetic foreground scrim of growth, nodding resiliently in the breezes.

Grown for

its habit.  Molinia is a tidy clumper that doesn't sprawl, spread, or thin out at the center.  The plumes stay upright, but with grace instead of stiffness, until ice and snow finally weight them down.  The low pendulous mound of foliage is a surprising contrast to the high-flying flowering stems.

 

its foliage.  Long thin leaves seem to arise directly from the ground, instead of being attached to stems.  They arch upward, outward, and then back down to the ground, but without kinking along the way or splaying outward at the center of the clump.  During the warm months, they're tidy but often hidden behind taller neighbors.  Only in the Fall, when those neighbors are often leafless or have died to the ground, does the foliage become prominent.  It takes the spotlight with authority, too, by changing color from blah-green to warm amber.

 

its plumes.  Thin but not rigid, the flowering stems emerge from the mound of foliage and soar five to eight feet high.  Airy plumes at the top increase the feeling of "gauze in front of the camera," making everything behind seem more magical.  The stems orient themselves perpendicularly to the half-sphere of foliage, instead of all pointing directly skyward, as is the case for, say, Panicum.  They create a shimmer of growth as tall or taller than you are.  Regardless of the dramas of warm-season weather—heavy downpours, freak blustery winds—the stems don't snap or get pushed out of their preferred array.  Instead, they continue to assort themselves uniformly through their chosen arc of space, without a gap in the center. 

 

its ease of care.  In my experience, 'Skyracer' doesn't self-seed, so you can leave the plumes up all Winter.  It doesn't need division, either.  The clump needs brief attention only in the Spring; see below for "How to handle it."

Flowering season

Mid-summer through Winter.  The plumes stay erect and attractive until heavy Winter weather finally stomps on them.  If you're lucky enough to be growing Molinia where there isn't heavy Winter weather, the plumes would stay up until you cut the entire clump to the ground to renew it the following Spring. 

Color combinations

In the warm months, the foliage is a non-descript green that goes with everything.  The airy plumes are a subtle pale green, maturing to tan, that is equally cosmopolitan.

Partner plants

Molinia has integrity from top to bottom, so you could partner it with very low plants at the front to keep the entire view unsullied.  As long as you kept it from growing back into the clump and, eventually, smothering it, ivy would be an effective partner: Its dark, shiny, and large green leaves would contrast beautifully with the thin and lighter-green Molinia leaves.  If you're gardening where the largest-leaved species such as Hedera colchica (Zone 6) and H. algeriensis (Zone 8) are hardy, so much the better.

 

Because the shimmering scrim of flowering plumes only enhances whatever you see through them, "background" partners to Molinia should really be thought of as garden stars in their own right, not large and boring things just to fill up space.  Darker foliage would emphasize the Molinia stems' light coloring, while larger leaves, dense growth, and plenty of bulk and size will highlight their thinness and tidy arc of array. 

 

What about purple smoke bush, Cotinus 'Velvet Cloak'?  Just don't let the Cotinus come into bloom:  Its pale, feathery, and fluffy flower structures—the "smoke"— would compete with the Molinia stems.  Instead, cut the Cotinus back to two feet each Spring; new growth will soar to eight to twelve feet, plenty high enough for a deep burgundy backdrop to the Molinia.


Or what about purple ninebark, Physocarpus 'Diablo'?  It can be cut back even more severely than the Cotinus—right to the ground is fine–to produce numerous, very long, and non-blooming stems lush with deep purple leaves. 

 

Purple-leaved tropicals would be especially dramatic:  An eight-foot colony of Canna 'Australia', say, or a grove of 'Carmencita' castor beans.     

Where to use it in your garden

Molinia is an asset in several different settings.  You can plant it far back in large beds, where the sky-high plumes bring easy shimmer to the planting but the lower leaves are hidden.  Or you can do more "architectural" plantings, surrounding Molinia amid a broad sweep of low groundcover, backing it with just a high hedge. 

 

I'm waiting, though, to see Molinia planted as a solo in immense ornamental containers.  The foliage would cascade right over the sides of the container, which is why the container would benefit from being raised up on a pedestal.  Huge urns would be the ideal.  And with full clearance all around, the high flowering plumes could "volumize" to the max.  It would be an incredible show.   

Culture

Full sun, decent soil, average water.  Molinia is very easy-going. 

How to handle it: The Basics

Like all ornamental grasses, Molinia should be planted only in the Spring.  As long as it has the room it needs thereafter, you might never need to do anything else but cut the clump back to a couple of inches before new growth begins each Spring.

 

If you're growing Molinia towards the bottom limit of its hardiness—in Zone 5 and especially into Zone 4—be sure to site it where it enjoys the best possible Winter drainage.  And leave the leaves and stems up all Winter instead of cutting them to the ground in the Fall.  Additionally, tie the foliage and stems together with twine, as if you were drawing them all together into a horticultural pony tail.  This keeps everything out of the way as you mound mulch high around the base of the clump.  Then cut the twine and let the foliage and plumes return to their free-range configuration.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

If you're considering growing Molinia in large and elevated containers, remember not to leave it in the container if your Winter temperatures are going to go much below freezing.  Below Zone 8, then, Molinia would be eager to grow outdoors in containers only through, say, Thanksgiving.  Then the plant would need to be moved into the relative shelter of, say, an unheated greenhouse.  (You can cut the clump down to a couple of inches to save room.)  But any ornamental container large enough to give a generous home to a full-size clump of Molinia is going to be quite heavy and awkward or even impossible to move into shelter.  Plus, ornamental grasses don't like to be dug up in the Fall, either.  The solution?  Grow your Molinia in a large black-plastic nursery pot year-round.  A ten or even fifteen-gallon size would be needed.  Slip the nursery-potted Molinia down into the ornamental container in Spring, and lift it back out of the container before serious weather arrives later in Fall.  

 

If, of course, you're gardening in mild climates—Zone 8 and 9 in the case of Molinia—you can grow it right in the container year-round.

Quirks or special cases

Nope.

 

Downsides

I can't think of one.  In my experience, Molinia is strictly on the up and up.   

Variants

There are smaller cultivars, such as 'Dauerstrahl', with foliage only a foot tall and plumes just to three feet.  Other cultivars, such as 'Moorhexe', have purple plumes.  There's also a 'Variegata', with leaves striped in yellow.  Ornamental grasses have long been a favorite of German nurserymen, hence the German cultivar names.  Don't fight them by sliding into the English versions; embrace the opportunity to hone your German pronunciation, not to mention the lingual agility you'll need to grapple with the language's characteristic fistfuls of consonants and forbiddingly long words.

Availability

On-line and at retailers.

Propagation

By division of the clumps in Spring. 

Native habitat

Molinia arundinacea is broadly native to Europe, west Asia, and northern Africa.

 
 
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