By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
The sway of gently arching foliage and swish that follows as they rustle in the wind are treats for the eye and the provision of the elegant fountain grass. There are many varieties of Pennisetum, with a wide range of sizes and foliage color. Near the end of the season, you may find your fountain grass turning white, bleached and unappealing. What is happening? Are there some sort of terrible fountain grass problems? Rest your mind, the plant is doing quite fine. The bleaching is a natural part of the plant’s life cycle.
Fountain grasses are perennial plants that form dense clumps of airy foliage. The grasses are a warm season plant, which means that they go dormant in winter. Fountain grass problems are few and the plants are tolerant when established. They are hardy, low maintenance plants for the savvy gardener.
White fountain grass, or Pennisetum setaceum ‘Alba,’ is an attractive form with slender green foliage and delicate nodding white inflorescences. Contrary to the name, it should not have white or even silvery leaves, but the name instead refers to the flower hue.
White fountain grass foliage arises near the end of the season when cold temperatures begin to arrive. The change in color signals the arrival of the plant’s dormancy. Usually, the blades start to yellow and fade, and eventually the tips turn white and brittle. A fountain grass turning white is the plant’s response to the cool temperatures as it readies itself to slumber until warm season temperatures return.
Any of the other varieties of fountain grass will experience the same bleaching and die back for winter.
Fountain grasses thrive in United States Department of Agriculture zones 5 to 9. In hotter climates, it may get burned by harsh sun rays and lose color on the tips of the leaf blades. In colder climates, the plant is an annual and will begin dying back in cold weather.
If you wish to preserve your plant in northern climes, pot it up and move it indoors for the winter. Plants that are grown in hot climates benefit from protection from midday sun. The foliage will perform best in light shade.
If fountain grass is bleaching out in any other condition, it is likely just a seasonal display and should be enjoyed. Should the color bother you, however, it is okay to cut the foliage back to several inches above the ground in late fall and wait for the new blades to come in when spring arrives.
Fountain grass is relatively resistant to pests and disease. Some plants may develop foliar problems with rust fungus, and slugs and snails may occasionally take bites out of the foliage but overall it is a hardy, rugged plant with few issues.
The seed heads produce prolifically, which can become a problem in some climates where they readily propagate and spread. Cutting off the inflorescences before they produce seed should reduce the issue.
Fountain grass is a reliable plant with graceful appeal and several seasons of interest, so don’t worry about the faded foliage and focus on the next spectacular season.
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Read more about Fountain Grass
To grow fountain grass, plant it from nursery transplants or seeds sown directly outdoors after the last expected frost. If growing from seed, water the soil frequently to keep it evenly moist. Plant fountain grass in an area that gets full sun for best results, although it can tolerate partial shade. Amend the soil with compost or manure to improve drainage. Plant fountain grass as a single specimen or in a mass planting. Give it plenty of room to spread.
Fountain grass can tolerate some drought once established, but it really prefers slightly moist soil. It can even be planted near ponds or other wet areas because it doesn’t mind wet conditions. Fertilize fountain grass in the spring with 2 tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer. If the plants sit next to a fertilized lawn, they may not need additional fertilizing.
Cut fountain grass back in late winter to about 3 inches above the soil line. Divide the plants every three to four years if they become thick and unruly. Dig the plants up and slice through them with a sharp knife. Replant the pieces and water them to encourage new growth.
Ornamental grasses are a jewel in any landscape that they are planted.
Apart from beautifying your environment, the grasses create a unique pattern that makes your landscape stand out.
Although these grasses are low-maintenance, they also have various problems.
That’s why if you notice that your ornamental grass is turning brown or yellowish, you should discover the problem and fix it before it is too late.
Various things can cause your ornamental grass to look dead or die slowly.
We’ve highlighted most of the possible causes and how to fix them. Continue reading to find out.
Insect on the grass can also cause your ornamental grass to die.
Identifying whether the insects are the ones causing the death of your plants or not is easy.
Simply run down your fingers up and down a blade of grass that is in the soil to find out.
Aphids and mites are the most common types of insects that attack ornamental grass.
For instance, aphids kill grass when they suck out the sap.
They are normally found on the underside of blades.
While mites suck the juices from the blades, making the infected parts yellow.
Unlike aphids that you can see with your naked eye, mites cannot be seen.
However, you can see their webbing on the grass.
Getting rid of insect infestation from your ornamental grass is easy.
As long as the ornamental grass is healthy, it will resist insects and other pests.
For this reason, you should care for your ornamental grass by watering and fertilizing it as needed.
Never allow your plants to become extremely dry as mites get attracted to dusty environments.
Besides, you can get rid of mites and aphids on the plants by spraying insecticidal soap spray. Don’t use poisonous chemicals that may kill beneficial insects.
If your ornamental grass starts to brown, then it may be due to overwatering.
Most types of ornamental grass don’t need overwatering as they don’t thrive in incredibly moist soil.
After watering your ornamental grass, you should give it time before re-watering.
This will ensure that your grass doesn’t lack water or has excess water.
On the same note, if you don’t water your ornamental grass properly, it will brown and die.
Always ensure that your plant is well watered and not under or overwatered. Your pant will grow smoothly and without any issue as long as it is fed with the right fertilizer.
Some people plant ornamental grass without considering what is needed to make it grow well and healthy.
As a result, failure to care for the ornamental grass may make it die.
First and foremost, ornamental grass cannot be grown in any climate.
They prefer a sunny climate with some exceptions such as fountain grass, maiden grass, and sea oats that can thrive in partial shade surroundings.
Aside from requiring a sunny climate, most ornamental grasses need properly drained soil, with the omission of umbrella grass, which flourishes in muddy conditions.
If you’re not taking care of your ornamental grass, you should start doing so.
Ensure that the conditions are right, and you’re growing the right type of ornamental grass in your location.
Furthermore, regularly check the grass for diseases, pests, and protect it from being destroyed by animals.
There are various diseases that can attack your grass and kill it. Some of the common diseases include powdery mildew, grass, and smut.
Let’s start with the powdery mildew. This is a fungal disease that can be spotted by powdery blotches on the leaves.
Extreme infection may cover the whole ornamental grass with the powdery blotches.
This problem is common in shady areas as powdery mildew build-ups in warm, humid conditions.
Rust is another disease that hurts your grass. It appears on the blade of the grass as a small reddish-orange or yellow blisters.
And when the disease spreads further, it changes to brown or yellow.
In the worst-case scenario, the grass blades might wilt or die.
For powdery mildew, you can stop its spread by applying a commercial fungicide. Additionally, you should plant ornamental grass in sunny areas where fungi won’t develop easily.
And for rust, you can stop its spread by getting rid of affected sections of the grass.
Also, you should water the plant from the base, instead of overhead watering, which promotes the growth of rust.
Deer, rabbit, and slugs may also destroy the ornamental grass. These may kill the plant entirely if they feed on it more regularly.
Slugs eat blades, which may lead to the death of your grass slowly.
Rabbits also destroy the grass chew but not to a large extent as larger animals such as deer.
If you notice a small section of your ornamental grass is chewed, then you should look out for rabbits in your area.
And if a huge part of your grass is destroyed, then that is a deer.
The good thing is that you can prevent your grass from being destroyed by identifying the animal attacking your plant.
If it’s a slug, you can make a trap for it and dispose of it. If it’s a rabbit, you can use a rabbit repellent.
And for a deer, you can also use a repellent to deter it from coming close to your plant.
When ornamental grass gets older, the center of grasses usually die. If this happens, you should divide the grass and plant it again.
The best time to divide and plant your old ornamental grass is during spring before new growth starts.
University of Missouri
University of Missouri
University of Missouri
Figure 1 A Chinese fountain grass plant in a tall fescue pasture in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
In recent years, we have received a number of complaints and calls about a grass that is starting to invade some pastures and roadsides in Missouri. The grass is called Chinese fountain grass, Pennisetum alopecuroides (figure 1). Cultivars of this grass such as 'Hameln' and 'Little Bunny' are commonly sold in the landscape industry because of their ornamental appeal (figure 2). However, the high degree of sterility in these cultivars causes them to be considered non-invasive, unlike Chinese fountain grass. Purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum') is also a popular related species. However, it is not considered to be winter hardy north of zone nine. Thus far, we have encountered Chinese fountain grass occurring as a weed in a pasture or roadside setting in Cape Girardeau, Perry, Madison, Greene and Barry counties in Missouri.
Figure 2 Hameln' is a very popular cultivar of Chinese fountain grass in the ornamental plant industry but is not considered to be invasive because of its high degree of sterility.
Figure 3 Chinese fountain grass has flat stems, especially when young, and tufts of hairs at the leaf color region. This grass also has a fibrous root system with rhizomes, which are horizontal undergound stems that are capable of producing new plants.
Chinese fountain grass is a C4 perennial bunch grass that can grow to as much as 3 ½ feet in height and has distinctive "bottle brush" seedheads when mature. The leaves are dark green in color, reaching as much as 20 inches in length and 10 mm in width, are generally without hairs except toward their base where there is a group of tufts of longer white hairs. The ligule is hair-like and stems are often distinctly flat, especially so in younger plants (figure 3). The seedheads resemble a bottle brush as a result of the arrangement of the individual spikelets, each of which are 5 to 8 mm in length, oval in shape and taper to a point at each end. Each spikelet contains a single seed and has from 10 to 30 long bristles that originate from their base. The bristles turn reddish-purple during the blooming period in late-summer/early-fall. Chinese fountain grass plants have a fibrous root system as well as short rhizomes.
The seed of these plants can spread aerially with wind gusts, and will also attach to clothing and/or animal fur. Our observations of some of the infestations we have discovered in Missouri indicate that the seed can also be inadvertently spread by mowing equipment (figure 4). Some USDA research suggests that plants in this genus have seed that can remain viable for up to 7 years.
Figure 4 Chinese fountain grass has also been discovered along roadsides in several counties in Missouri.
In our experience with this grass thus far, livestock will not graze fountain grass once it is past the seedling stage of growth. In fact, livestock actively avoid it, most likely due to the waxy leaves and tough stems that grow back from their bases after mowing (figure 5). As this is a perennial grass with a hearty rootstock, our observations have also been that mowing does very little to provide any reduction in the growth of this species.
Figure 5 Cattle generally avoid the tough stems and waxy leaves of Chinese fountain grass that persist after mowing.
As with any newly-introduced unwanted plant species, producers who discover Chinese fountain grass should make every effort to proactively eradicate these plants before a much bigger problem develops. All available mechanical, cultural, and chemical options should be exploited when implementing a management program.
For growers who have only sporadic infestations of this grass, probably the most effective method of eradication will be mechanical removal of the entire plant and rootstock, preferably before viable seed are produced. Cultural controls could include selecting other landscape alternatives, especially near and around pastures, and maintaining a thick, competitive forage to limit any opportunity for establishment of this species. It will also be important to monitor fields, fencerows, rights-of-way, and roadsides for the presence of this grass and avoid moving equipment, vehicles, or livestock through any fields when seedheads are present.
Unfortunately, based on the limited amount of research we have conducted on this species thus far, it appears that there are very few effective herbicide options for the control of Chinese fountain grass in a grass pasture or hay field setting (Table 1). Based on a field trial we conducted in Cape Girardeau county in 2017, only spot treatment with glyphosate (Roundup, etc.) provided acceptable levels of control of this grass species. Even though certain treatments provided some degree of initial suppression, all of the other selective or non-selective herbicide treatments evaluated provided less than 33% control of Chinese fountain grass by 21 weeks after application.
Table 1 Evaluation of Chinese fountain grass control with herbicide treatments.
So at this time, our only recommendations for eradication of this species are spot treatment with glyphosate, or mechanical removal of the entire plant and rootstock. If you encounter this species on your land, please contact us and let us know so that we can better understand the distribution of this species in Missouri.
Pennisetum spp. (sometimes included in the genus Cenchrus, the burgrasses)
Pennisetum ciliare - buffelgrass
Pennisetum setaceum - the related fountaingrass which is also a serious invasive threat
I've known that non-native grasses fuel wildfires. (I saw it happen in my own neighborhood on Lookout Mt.) I'd heard of the invasive red brome (Bromus rubens) being a scourge in the desert, but didn't give it much thought, didn't know what it looked like. (Now that I know what it looks like, I know I've seen it growing--but can't remember where.)
Pictures of buffelgrass caught my attention I have this stuff
! I didn't know about these grasses (Pennisetum spp.), didn't realize how lethal they are to the desert--much worse than red brome--and didn't realize that this is the stuff that I see everywhere. Am *most* unhappy about having it in my very own yard (pre-existing)! Its days are numbered.