By Ralph E. Mitchell
Ornamental grasses can add a texture and color to landscapes that broadleaf plants cannot touch. The wind-driven motion of swaying grass topped with ornamental flowerheads provides dimension and even seasonal color. One tried and true ornamental grass that is widely popular is purple fountain grass. Just like its name, this landscape plant offers both a reddish-purple color and a living vase of foliage.
Purple fountain grass is a cultivar called ‘Rubrum’ selected from Pennisetum setaceum, or green fountain grass. The purple to reddish-burgundy foliage makes it stand out from the normal greenish hues associated with ornamental grass. This color makes it particularly suitable to mass planting where it can be fully appreciated. Purple fountain grass also looks good when grown as a border planting, and provides a great accent if installed around an actual fountain. This plant needs a full-sun site for best color, and is considered moderately drought-tolerant once established. Plant on at least thirty-six inch centers to allow enough room to spread out and assume the fountain-like shape. Growing to about four-foot tall and four foot wide, this upright plant sports a pinkish inflorescence that completes the fountain effect. The twelve-inch long nodding flowerhead is feathery in nature and is held well above the foliage on a three-foot long stalk. If the full-sized purple fountain grass is too big for your landscape, there is a dwarf version called ‘Rubrum Dwarf’ which only gets to about two and one-half feet tall.
Now while the purple fountain grass is a perennial, it is also considered somewhat short-lived. However, it is common for this grass to reseed itself with volunteer plantlets which may refill any areas otherwise vacated. And although this characteristic can label the purple fountain grass as “mildly invasive”, it has not been documented by the UF/IFAS Assessment of Non-native Plants in Florida’s Natural Areas to be a problem. The UF/IFAS Assessment of Non-native Plants in Florida’s Natural Areas is a helpful tool to explore – please see here – https://assessment.ifas.ufl.edu/. The UF/IFAS Assessment tool provides current, reliable, and informed recommendations for the use of non-native plant species in the state of Florida. The purple fountain grass is also not listed on the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council’s 2019 List of Invasive Plant Species.
As an extra bonus, the flower heads of this grass can be used in fresh cut flower arrangements. However, they do not hold up for long and do not make good dry flower material as they tend to fall apart as they dry.
Purple fountain grass is readily available at most garden centers in our area. If you like the look of ornamental grasses, the purple fountain grass may be in your future! For more information on all types of ornamental grasses suitable for our area, please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer. Don’t forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area. Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times – https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/media/sfylifasufledu/charlotte/docs/pdf/Plant-Clinics-Schedule1.pdf. Ralph E. Mitchell is the Director/Horticulture Agent for the Charlotte County Extension Service. He can be reached at 941-764-4344 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gilman, E. F. (2014) Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ Purple Fountain Grass. The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Thetford, M. (2015) Considerations for Selection and Uses of Ornamental Grasses. The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council’s 2019 List of Invasive Plant Species – http://bugwoodcloud.org/CDN/fleppc/plantlists/2019/2019_Plant_List_ABSOLUTE_FINAL.pdf.
UF/IFAS Assessment of Non-native Plants in Florida’s Natural Areas – https://assessment.ifas.ufl.edu/.