It would take many lifetimes to exhaust all the possibilities of plant selection and design possibilities for our gardens. Take kinetic plants for example. These are species that sway in the wind or even a light breeze. These include ornamental grasses, sedges and rushes. Butterfly bushes (Buddleja spp.) and magic wand flowers (Gaura/Oenothera linheimeri) also have this trait. Many are extremely drought tolerant, while others can live at the edge of a pond and still require only occasional summer water when planted in the garden.
San Marcos Growers lists 91 different types of ornamental grasses alone, and Monrovia Nursery lists 156 options (monrovia.com/shop/by-type/grasses.html) under what they generally classify as grasses. The reason for Monrovia’s more extensive list is that bamboos, which are members of the grass family, and sedges and rushes, which are not grasses but resemble them in some respects, as well as mondo grass and liriope, which are actually members of the grass family Monrovia’s list are lily family.
There is a common denominator for the various groups of plants found on the above Monrovia list. They are all monocots. Flowering plants or angiosperms are divided into dicots and monocots. Dicots have two seed leaves, or cotyledons, and monocots have one. The two halves of a kidney bean are known as the seed leaves, the first “leaves” to show when the seed germinates. In contrast, a corn kernel or a palm seed, when planted, will reveal a single slender seed leaf when it germinates. One might think monocots would be a more primitive life form than dicots. After all, isn’t a rose, a remarkable dicotyledonous rose, a more complex flower than a cornflower, whether it’s the male tassel of a corn or the female silk? And don’t we usually associate complexity with more advanced evolutionary plants and animals? By the late 19th century, this was the accepted theory of which came first – the monocot or the dicot.
For more than a century, however, the prevailing theory has held that monocots evolved from dicots. More recently, DNA sequencing has lent more credence to this theory. Also when it comes to resilience and endurance, traits that determine fitness and hence more advanced and demanding development in evolutionary terms, monocots outperform dicots. Grasses are found on 20% of the Earth’s landmass, much of it in areas where nothing else grows. With only one cotyledon, the embryo — consisting of a rudimentary root and the first true leaf — of a monocot receives all of its nutrition from a single source, while a dicot embryo must have two fully functioning cotyledons to sustain its embryonic growth. Monocots like grasses also grow quickly and form flowers quickly, while many dicots must first produce wood and can grow for several years before flowering. Monocots are also hardier than dicots, as they show a greater ability to regrow after being burned or grazed, and are also resistant to disease and insect pests. I I must say that after decades of observing a variety of ornamental grasses, I have never noticed any sign of disease or insect damage among them.
Back to kinetic plants, I decided to write about them after receiving the following email from Donna Pullman, who gardens in Seal Beach. “I live near the beach and have a sidewalk spot to plant in front of a picket fence. I really need to simplify my life with low maintenance plants. I would like something that can blow in the wind and has some movement. I like the Mexican Feather Grass but I think it might not be good for our environment. Thank you for any advice.”
I remember the first time I saw Mexican Feather Grass (Nassella tenuissima) years ago and recognized it as one of the most beautiful plants under the sun. It is a clumping weed with delicate green curls that turn blonde and then tawny as it matures. Additionally, Mexican feather grass will self-seed with alacrity and will soon occupy a planter on the sidewalk, requiring only a minimum of moisture to thrive, not to mention swaying back and forth in the gentlest of breezes.
The problem with Mexican feather grass, as Ms. Pullman suggests, is that it knows no boundaries. Within a few years it could easily take over your yard and adjacent gardens in your neighborhood, eventually spreading into the surrounding hills and ravines, suffocating the native flora. Most nurseries no longer sell this plant because of its invasive tendencies.
Also, when it comes to low-maintenance plants, I wouldn’t necessarily put ornamental grasses in that category. Aside from spreading some of them, albeit not as wildly as Mexican feather grass, even many of the tamer grasses need grooming once a year lest they end up looking shaggy. For example, it is advisable to cut back the popular Burgundy fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum var. Rubrum), which is sterile and does not self-seed, at best once a year. Pruning can be done any time from late fall to early spring. Cut off leaving a third of each clump. If you cut back too far, they may not grow back. Once the clump starts sending out new growth, you can divide it and plant the divisions in other parts of the garden. Be sure to divide when the plants are actively growing and before winter comes. Otherwise, after transplantation, your divisions may languish and even die.
By the way, there is an ornamental grass that self-seeds but is not as aggressive and is sometimes suggested as a lawn substitute. The species in question is blue oat (Helictotrichon sempervirens). There are two types of turf substitutes, both of which are drought tolerant by definition: those that act as turf, meaning they can accommodate foot traffic to some extent, and those that simply cover the space that a turf would otherwise take up . Blue oat is of the second kind. I planted it once and watched it slowly but surely take over a space that was once a lawn but had since been converted into herb beds. I removed most of it but can vouch for its charm. It doesn’t need yearly pruning like jumping grass to maintain its fresh appearance and fountain-like shape.
If you choose grasses, you can contrast burgundy fountain grass with blue oats, blue ryegrass (Leymus arenarius ‘Glaucus’) or blue moor grass (Sesleria caerulea). Variegated grasses are also popular, with white and yellow striped zebra grasses (Miscanthus cultivars) and variegated reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam’) leading the way.
I can think of two pink flowering grasses that would also make a good contrast to the blue and burgundy species mentioned above. One of them is widely considered to have the loveliest flower tassels of any ornamental grass. Known as Ruby Grass (Melinus nervilumis), it blooms in the hottest summer weather when it displays charming pink inflorescences that take on an attractive burgundy bronze. Photos never do Ruby Grass justice and convey only a small part of its essential beauty. Pink hair or pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) is quite capable of surviving a drought, although it looks better when occasionally drenched as it transforms into a fluffy pink plume.
Then there are the proven kinetic rushes, including the California gray rush (Juncus patens), with strong cylindrical trunks up to two feet tall. My favorite rush, native to South Africa, has a trait that, to my knowledge, is not found in any other plant. Brown bands on its cylindrical stems turn to gold on the inside before shedding; It’s like looking at peeling strips of 22k gold leaf every time you walk past the facility. Eventually, attractive brown flowers form at the stem tips. This plant goes by the name Cape Binse and comes in two sizes, one with stems three feet long (Chondropetalum tectorum) and one with stems that reach five feet or more (Chondropetalum elephatinum). Both ornamental grasses and rushes make excellent container specimens.
As previously mentioned, butterfly bush is a kinetic plant, and a much sought-after one at that, especially now that its flower clusters of lavender or lilac are stretching to 12 inches or more in length. You never need to prune them, but for larger flower clusters and a more compact plant, prune them back by two-thirds every now and then; Just before the growing season begins is the time for that. Magic wand flower, also called gaura or whirling butterflies, sends out two-foot long shoots of white or magenta pink flowers throughout summer.
If you’ve had success with a kinetic plant (or plants), please share your story by sending it to the email address below. You are invited to send any questions, comments or photos to email@example.com.