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Gardening 101: Stipa Grasses

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Gardening 101: Stipa Grasses

November 18, 2019

Stipa Grass, Stipa: “Feather Dusters”

Feather, needle, and spear. These grasses form the genus Stipa and they’re the ones you can count on to sway in the gentlest breeze. Adding Stipa to the landscape guarantees movement, refinement, and even calm. Just what everyone needs in the new year.

More than 200 grasses comprise the Stipa genus and many are vital forage crops. Stipa grasses stand out for their tufted, clump formations and long awns, reminiscent of their grass namesakes. Leaves are pleated, rolled, or linear and their flowers can be feathery or more bristle-like. Most prefer drier climates.

Stipa tenuissima (Mexican feather grass or Nassella tenuissima) is among the most popular of the Stipas. All summer, S. tenuissima features bursts of feathery panicles, which change from foamy green to blonde. In this Dorset garden, designer Robert Kennett planted Mexican feather grass to add dynamism to a front border. Photograph courtesy of Robert Kennett.
Above: Stipa tenuissima (Mexican feather grass or Nassella tenuissima) is among the most popular of the Stipas. All summer, S. tenuissima features bursts of feathery panicles, which change from foamy green to blonde. In this Dorset garden, designer Robert Kennett planted Mexican feather grass to add dynamism to a front border. Photograph courtesy of Robert Kennett.
Mexican feather grass in its lush green stage, before it turns golden. Designer Marni Majorelle of Alive Structures chose it for a townhouse rooftop project in Brooklyn&#8\2\17;s Fort Greene neighborhood. For more on this project, see Brooklyn Oasis: A City Roof Garden, Before & After. Photograph by Marni Majorelle.
Above: Mexican feather grass in its lush green stage, before it turns golden. Designer Marni Majorelle of Alive Structures chose it for a townhouse rooftop project in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood. For more on this project, see Brooklyn Oasis: A City Roof Garden, Before & After. Photograph by Marni Majorelle.
At Llanover Gardens in South Wales, Stipa gigantea—golden oat grass—plays against verbena, dahlia, rudbeckia, and bloodtwig dogwood. In addition to texture and form, S. gigantea brings a rustling to the garden. And it adds tall but light-handed structure, with some panicles hitting 8 feet. Try planting golden oat grass as a specimen or in small groupings down a long border. Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer.
Above: At Llanover Gardens in South Wales, Stipa gigantea—golden oat grass—plays against verbena, dahlia, rudbeckia, and bloodtwig dogwood. In addition to texture and form, S. gigantea brings a rustling to the garden. And it adds tall but light-handed structure, with some panicles hitting 8 feet. Try planting golden oat grass as a specimen or in small groupings down a long border. Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer.

Cheat Sheet

  • S. tenacissima is one of two grasses that produces esparto grass, used to make cords, basketry, paper, and espadrilles. The other is Lygeum spartum.
  • Stipa inflorescences are perfect for dried flower arrangements.
  • For showstoppers like S. gigantea, try planting as a single specimen or in small groups down a long border.

Keep It Alive

  • Soil should be well draining and fairly fertile for most Stipas to thrive.
  • There’s debate as to when to cut back—in early winter or early spring—so experiment with what works in your climate. Regardless, trim the foliage when it starts looking worn.
  • Most Stipas bloom in the sun.
 Stipa arundinacea, also known as New Zealand wind grass or pheasant&#8\2\17;s tale grass, is a favorite of West Coast gardeners. Here, Jeffrey Gordon Smith Landscape Architecture uses it in a project in California&#8\2\17;s Los Osos Valley. Photograph by Chris Leschinsky.
Above: Stipa arundinacea, also known as New Zealand wind grass or pheasant’s tale grass, is a favorite of West Coast gardeners. Here, Jeffrey Gordon Smith Landscape Architecture uses it in a project in California’s Los Osos Valley. Photograph by Chris Leschinsky.
Stipa arundinacea is streaked orange in summer, turning to an orange-tinged brown in winter. Photograph by Chris Leschinsky.
Above: Stipa arundinacea is streaked orange in summer, turning to an orange-tinged brown in winter. Photograph by Chris Leschinsky.

Beth Chatto sells stipa splendens online

Above: Stipa splendens works well in Beth Chatto’s celebrated Gravel Garden in Essex, which is never watered. S. splendens features very thin flower spikes from a large, clumped base. The Beth Chatto Gardens sells Stipa Splendens seeds seasonally.

Stipa splendens works well in Beth Chatto&#8\2\17;s celebrated Gravel Garden in Essex, which is never watered. S. splendens features very thin flower spikes from a large, clumped base. The Beth Chatto Gardens sells Stipa Splendens seeds seasonally.
Above: Stipa splendens works well in Beth Chatto’s celebrated Gravel Garden in Essex, which is never watered. S. splendens features very thin flower spikes from a large, clumped base. The Beth Chatto Gardens sells Stipa Splendens seeds seasonally.

For ideas on other grasses to add to the landscape, see more Plant Guides on Fountain Grass, Amazon Mist Sedge, Muhlenbergia, Carex, and Fescue. For even more inspiration, check out:

Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow and care for various grasses with our Grasses: A Field Guide.

Additionally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for stipa grass with our Stipa Grass: A Field Guide.

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