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Uncommon Grasses

Give your garden a bit of glamour with these eye-catching, out-of-the-ordinary varieties

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A couple of old-school gardeners I admire believe that ornamental grasses belong in meadows or along the shore, not in the garden. I reluctantly agree that grasses can dress the garden with a pizzazz bordering on wild abandonment, but I have to insist that most of us really need something besides the flattened blades of daylilies and irises to contrast with our gardens’ mélange of round-leaf textures and woody plant shapes. And grasses are better than anything else at capturing summer’s light and refracting it like a gemstone. In fact, grasses are to the garden what a scarf and earrings are to my inner French woman: necessary accessories. Long blades, like a silver necklace, give the light a shiny surface for our eyes to wander along. Airy blooms wrap around the garden like a stole, embellishing its natural beauty. And sparkling seed heads are its diamond bling.

Most of us have in our gardens the everyday grasses, like miscanthus ( Miscanthus spp. and cvs., USDA Hardiness Zones 4–9) and fountain grass ( Pennisetum spp. and cvs., Zone 6–11). They’re comfortable and sturdy, but most of us would have to admit that they’re wearing thin on excitement. The finest, most coveted jewels are almost always the uncom mon ones. There are many grasses worth seeking out when you want to give your garden a dash of panache.

These annual selections are easy to grow and utterly adorable

Dusky blades and arching seeds

Name: Ornamental rice ( Oryza sativa cvs.)

Considering how common rice is in our diet, it’s surprisingly unusual to find it in our gardens. But most of us who grow ornamental rice are more interested in its subtle, exotic beauty than its nutritional value. I grow cultivars like ‘Black Madras’ and ‘Red Dragon’ for their 18-inch-tall, dusky, rainbow-colored blades, which dress my garden with glamorous sophistication. Gorgeous green seeds form toward the end of the season, revealing themselves only as they gain weight and arch outward from the foliage like beaded spangles. Ornamental rice will thrive in consis­tently moist to wet soil, so plant it near a pond or in a sunny rain garden or keep it saturated in a container fitted with a saucer.

USDA Hardiness Zones: Annual

Bloom time: Late summer

Size: 18 to 24 inches tall and 1 foot wide

Conditions: Full sun; moist to wet, fertile soil

Soft, touchable blooms

Name: Bunny tail grass ( Lagurus ovatus )

Photo: Marianne Majerus/Marianne Majerus Garden Images

Bunny tail grass is so cute that you’ll want to plant it in your pocket. Angora-soft tassels beg to be picked and stroked and kept forever. But even though picking them prolongs the bloom—as would faithfully deadheading any annual—this is a cool-season grass that comes into bloom early and goes to seed quickly once summer’s heat sets in. It doesn’t matter, though, because the cottontails don’t self-destruct and will look even more adorable dried on the plant than they do in a vase. Plant this grass as fringe along the garden’s sunniest edges, tucked wherever its curls of tanned midsummer leaves won’t tempt you to pull their threads out. In midsummer, plant some more seeds in pots, three to six per pot, or sow them directly for a shot at late-summer spring-green posies as temperatures cool back down.

Zones: Annual

Bloom time: Early summer

Size: 20 inches tall and 1 foot wide

Conditions: Full sun; fertile, well-drained soil

Fireworks that last all summer

Name: ‘Frosted Explosion’ switchgrass ( Panicum elegans ‘Frosted Explosion’)

Photo: Kristin Green

Picture waving a sparkler around on the Fourth of July. Now picture it staying lit for the whole summer. The blooms of ‘Frosted Explosion’ switchgrass burst out of their stems in midsummer (provided you start seeds in midspring), and the wands are so lovely in arrangements that it was awarded the 2010 Cut Flower of the Year (dried-flower category) by the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. Cutting keeps it blooming, but its cele­bratory beauty is by no means diminished as the flowers fade to frothy seed heads, which hang on into fall. ‘Frosted Explosion’ looks best in tight clumps spaced no more than 12 inches apart. But weeders, beware: Its seedlings look an awful lot like crabgrass.

Zones: Annual

Bloom time: Midsummer

Size: 24 to 32 inches tall and 1 to 2 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun; fertile, well-drained soil

Papery jewels that shiver in the breeze

Name: Big quaking grass ( Briza maxima )

Photo: Marianne Majerus/Marianne Majerus Garden Images

Beginning in early summer, big quaking grass dons spikelets of puffed seed heads that shimmy in the wind and dangle like green-gold earrings from impossibly fine stems. The seed heads are often described as fairy lanterns, but to me, they have a certain insect quality; perhaps it has to do with their animated heart-shaped “body” or the way they catch the light. Place these slender beauties in tight drifts, 6 to 10 inches apart, where they’ll be backlit against the morning or setting sun, and give them a front-row seat with anything they can hover over without interference. Aggressive self-sowing may be managed somewhat by picking spikelets before they’ve gone to seed and using them in flower arrangements.

Zones: Annual

Bloom time: Late spring to late summer

Size: Up to 2 feet tall and 10 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil

In warmer climates, these grasses will come back year after year

Windswept tresses

Name: Foxtail barley ( Hordeum jubatum )

Photo: Jerry Pavia

Nodding sprays of salmon-pink flowers have earned foxtail barley, a native roadside weed, a place in our gardens to wind like a boa through fellow June- and July-flowering plants, like ox-eye daisy ( Leucanthemum vulgare , Zones 3–8) and black-eyed Susan ( Rudbeckia spp. and cvs., Zones 3–11). As a cool-season grass, foxtail barley is at its best as late-blooming grasses are still shooting out their leaves. Its luminous plumage fades to beige on barbed seed heads, which shatter and disperse (by attaching to the clothes of passersby) just as the late bloomers are ready to take over the show. Foxtail barley will self-sow in most gardens and in any soil. So the trick after getting it established is simply to edit out any unwanted seedlings—and keep the plant as far as possible from livestock pastures because its seed heads can severely damage a cow’s or horse’s mouth.

Zones: 4 to 8

Bloom time: Early to midsummer

Size: Up to 20 inches tall and 1 foot wide

Conditions: Full sun; fertile, well-drained soil

Coppery mounds of loveliness

Name: Orange New Zealand sedge ( Carex testacea and cvs.)

Photo: Jerry Pavia

Orange New Zealand sedge is known for its mounds of superfine, deep olive green threads that tint outward to sunset orange. Although this sedge can take some shade, it will glow more luminously if you give it a sunny spot where the soil remains that ideal and elusive combination of moist and well drained. If your garden is like mine and has no suitable spot, plant a few of them, instead, in containers. Sedges are unusual among grasses for generally being evergreen and not needing to be cut down in late winter. But to make way for new growth, comb out the dead bits and keep an eye out for any politely proffered seedlings. Wherever it isn’t reliably hardy, bring it inside to a bright drafty window for the winter. Buy this one as a full-grown plant because starting it from seed can be a challenge.

Zones: 7 to 9

Bloom time: Midsummer

Size: 18 to 24 inches tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained soil

A vision in pink

Name: Ruby grass ( Melinis nerviglumis and cvs.)

I would grow ruby grass simply for its blue-green foliage, but when it tops that with silken, feathery pink blooms, I’m a smitten kitten. Ruby grass stands out from the crowd, so don’t put this Baby in a corner. Let it take center stage under a spotlight sun, and watch it dance with a Swayze breeze. If it must blend with a crowd, place it along a front edge or tucked neatly into a ground cover. As the flowers turn to seed heads, they become a tea-stained color before blowing away. Deadheading to keep it in bloom isn’t necessary. But the flowers do last in arrangements, so you might as well use them.

Zones: 8 to 10

Bloom time: Midsummer

Size: 18 to 24 inches tall and 12 to 18 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun; fertile, well-drained soil

Bright, feathery tassels

Name: Feathertop grass ( Pennisetum villosum )

Fountain grasses are known for their fluffy blooms, but none is as cream-puffy as feathertop grass. Fountain grasses are also well known for their gracefully flowing foliage; here, again, feathertop grass takes the cake. Endless narrow blades form a generous hoop skirt of foliage to support flounces of flowers beginning in August and continuing to a hard frost. Sow no more than two or three seeds per pot, and plan to give this one its full 2-foot-wide allotment of space to keep it from sitting on its neighbors.

Zones: 8 to 10

Bloom time: Mid-to-late summer

Size: Up to 2 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun; fertile, well-drained soil

A glamorous redhead

Name: Red hook sedge ( Uncinia uncinata ‘Rubra’)

Photo: courtesy of Annie’s Annuals & Perennials

New Zealand native red hook sedge shines with its own odd light. Roughly curled and folded red blades erupt into a dense clump and send up dark flower spikes in late summer. One red hook sedge would be pretty enough as a garnet pendant in a container, but as a beaded necklace strung around the garden, it would be even lovelier. Let it provide a contrast with extraleafy plants, like bergenia ( Bergenia spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9) or lettuces; how monochromatically chic it would be with the red-leaf lettuce varieties, like ‘Lolla Rossa’. Where it isn’t hardy, bring in red hook sedge and place it in a cool window for the winter. Comb out dead blades in early spring to make room for fresh growth.

Zones: 8 to 11

Bloom time: Late summer

Size: 12 to 14 inches tall and wide

Conditions: Partial to full shade; moist to boggy soil

Shifting shades of steel

Name: Blue wheatgrass ( Elymus magellanicus )

When garden conditions are perfect, the slender blades of blue wheatgrass fall outward from a central clump, and they shift in the light from sterling silver to aqua­marine. When conditions are imperfect—as when the soil is bone dry or the summers are hot and humid—the leaves are likely to tarnish with a rust fungus or scorch to crisps. The only thing to do is give this grass everything it wants: partial mid­summer shade, the best soil, and regular irrigation for resplendent and shimmering blueness. In warm zones, it will be everblue but should always be cut back in early spring to make way for new growth and modest May flowers.

Zones: 6 to 10

Bloom time: Midspring

Size: 1 to 2 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun; moist, well-drained soil

I can’t imagine inviting any of these ornamental grasses into an elegant and formally attired English-style border garden. But any garden with an au courant naturalistic mix of plants absolutely needs them. This winter, take a look through the seed catalogs and nursery websites; no doubt you’ll find dozens of beauties I neglected to mention.

Starting G rasses From Seed Is Easy

Growing grasses from seed couldn’t be easier, less expensive, or more rewarding. It also ensures that you’ll have plenty to show off in generous clumps and drifts. While most vegetable seedlings need to be thinned, seed-grown grasses are slender, delicate things that benefit from a bit of crowding. Several seeds can be packed in a pot to give the plants the bulk they need to keep from looking spindly in the garden.

1. Start in late winter or early spring, sowing three to six seeds per pot in fine-textured potting soil. Cover them lightly with the same soil. Check the package for any specific sowing instructions; if there are none, assume that the seeds will need only light, heat, and moisture to germinate.

Place the pots indoors on a sunny windowsill or under grow lights. If you don’t have a heating mat, move trays from their window sunbeams or grow lights to the top of the refrigerator at night, or water the pots with tepid water.

Photo: Brittany Leandra

2. Keep the soil moist as seedlings develop. The more tightly packed they are in their pots, the more crucial it is to keep an eye on moisture levels as their roots fill in.

3. Move the seedlings outside during the day to harden off as night temperatures reach 55°F, then plant them out after the last frost, giving them only the space they’ll need to arch their blades when they’ve reached their full size. Most look fabulous planted in tight drifts and clumps. Fat grasses, like orange New Zealand sedge, feathertop grass, and ruby grass, need extra space to display their graceful girth.

Kristin Green is an interpretive horticulturist at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens and Arboretum in Bristol, Rhode Island.

Photos, except where noted: Michelle Gervais

Sources

  • Digging Dog Nursery, Albion, Calif.; 707-937-1130; diggingdog.com
  • Park Seed Co., Greenwood, S.C.; 800-845-3369; parkseed.com
  • Seedman.com, 3421 Bream St., Gau­tier, MS 39553; seedman.com
  • Thompson & Morgan, Aurora, Ind.; 800-274-7333; tmseeds.com

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5 Absolutely Stunning Ideas for Using Seasonal Seed Pods in Your Fall Decor

Massachusetts floral designer Karin Lidbeck-Brent is always searching for interesting things to use in her arrangements. To add a unique, non-blooming touch, she likes to collect seed pods from garden, meadow, and roadside plants each fall. "We pass attractive pods every day but tend to look for pretty flowers and not so much for brown and dried things," she says. Seed pods may not be the most traditional choice for fall floral arrangements, but they can be just as striking as colorful zinnias or mums. Rather than bright colors, seed pods can liven up your fall decor with their intriguing shapes and textures, and sometimes even scents and sounds.

When gathering seed pods anywhere other than your own garden, always make sure to get permission first from the property owner. Some plants can be prickly so grab your gardening gloves along with your clippers. And if you end up collecting too much of a beautiful thing, save nature's bounty until next year. Place excess pods in plastic storage bags or a big box until you need them. Lidbeck-Brent stores her extras so she'll have a handy supply at the ready whenever an arrangement calls for a striking shape or texture. Use these quick and easy designs as inspiration for gorgeous fall centerpieces of your own that feature seed pods and warm autumn colors.

1. Bell Jar and Pumpkin Display

Take inspiration directly from one of fall's most iconic plants—gourds! Using a round pumpkin for the base and a glass bell jar ($38, Target) on top mimics a gourd's natural shape. Combine sphagnum moss ($6, The Home Depot) and a variety of seed pods under the jar for an enchanting fall centerpiece.

Foraging & Using Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) grows just about anywhere and everywhere all across the eastern part of the United States.

All it needs is an abandoned field, highway median or roadside ditch and it’s happy as can be. There’s nothing like a tasty plant that just loves to grow in just about anywhere, it’s a forager’s dream.

Everyone has their gateway plant into foraging, and more often than not it’s something like fresh dandelions on the lawn or a sweet patch of wild chanterelles happened upon in the woods. Mine’s a bit different you see. For me, sumac changed everything.

I’d been into herbal medicine since my early teens, but I never really considered myself a forager. At one point I found myself reading a herbal manual, learning about some of the medicinal plants traditionally used by native peoples in the northeast.

I came across a description of a plant with bright red, hairy fruit that grows upright in a pyramidal shape. It said they were just about everywhere in Vermont, but to the best of my knowledge, I’d never seen any hairy red fruits.

Of course, no pictures in the manual didn’t help. How on earth hadn’t I noticed sumac, if it does indeed grow everywhere? I kept my eyes peeled for over a year, hoping to spot a hairy red fruit, but no luck.

Staghorn Sumac Range (source)

Then something magic happened. I was pulling out of the parking lot at work, right after I’d given my 2 weeks notice because we were moving to our dream homestead off the grid.

At one edge I see this strange-looking plant and realizing I have nowhere to be in that strange lame-duck period before you actually finish at a job, I stopped and got out to look. I examined it and found these strange upright clusters of bright red fuzzy seeds. They were beautiful, what on earth could they be?

And then it hit me all at once. The plant I’d been looking for all year had been growing not 50 feet from where I’d parked my car every day for the past 5 years. Sometimes all you have to do is open your eyes, and take the time to stop and really look, and there you find what you’ve been searching for.

Identifying Staghorn Sumac

One of the reasons I had such a hard time finding staghorn sumac is that all the descriptions I read of the plant’s fruit and growth habit were absolutely useless. By some definition, it does have bright red “fruit” covered in fuzz, but more practically speaking the “fruits” are just clusters of seeds. Think of it more like the seedhead on millet or sorghum, but tightly packed and tapering to a point at the top.

The seeds are covered in bright red “hairs” that aren’t really hairs. They’re tiny fibers that are covered in a sticky resin-like substance. When you hold staghorn sumac, the fuzz will gently brush off and the aromatic oils within the “fuzz” will stick to your hands.

Sumac grows in colonies, with the older trees in the center as the tallest, and then gradually shorter tree/shrubs radiating out. They’re usually somewhere between 8 and 20 feet tall.

The leaf stalks reaching out from the main branches are large, around 2 feet long, and individual leaves coming out in matched pairs all the way down the stalk. In botany speak, they’re pinnately compound, with each leaflet lanceolate and serrate.

Here’s a bit of a better view of the leaves…note the serrated edges, an important identification characteristic.

While most descriptions of this really common weed shrub come up lacking, I wasn’t disappointed when I finally flipped open A Forager’s Harvest, one of the best foraging books I’ve read to date.

The descriptions and pictures are consistently good, and the text is written from firsthand experience. Unfortunately, I found this book about 5 years after my first sumac, so alas…

The seed pods come out of the top of branches and usually point upward towards the sky. In the early spring, the immature seedheads are green until they slowly develop a pinkish tinge that spreads and gradually turns to a bright velvet red.

When to Harvest Staghorn Sumac

Once the seed pods ripen, staghorn sumac persists all throughout the winter. That means it can be foraged at almost anytime throughout the year assuming you can find seed pods in good condition. Depending on the weather and the exact site, the pods may degrade or discolor.

Often the pods become infested with worms in the center too, so the older the pods the more likely they’ve got someone living inside. For the most part that’s not a huge issue, if you just strip off the clean-ish seeds on the outside and discard the wormy center of the seed pod.

As the pods age, they begin to lose their flavor. The rain washes them out a bit and they’re not as potent or tasty. By late summer, flavors are waning, but they’re often still great in some locations into October or November.

Nonetheless, they’re one of the wild edibles that can be foraged all winter long if you choose. Even when it’s -20 here in a Vermont January, there’s still sumac a plenty, much of it still bright and almost good as new.

Sumac against a January Sky in Vermont.

The only time it’s tricky to harvest staghorn sumac is in the late spring, when the old pods have begun to degrade and the new ones are still too green to harvest. You’ll often see the last remnants of last year’s pods picked over by the early spring birds. Generally, birds don’t go in for sumac, but early spring arrivals are less picky.

While spring may be a dry time for sumac pods, I’ve recently learned that the shoots are edible! Samuel Thayer describes his experience harvesting new sumac shoots as a child, “In the late spring and very early summer, I would gather these shoots on a daily basis and peel off the leaves and bitter outer bark, then eat the shoots raw. These are slightly sweet and delicious, tasting more like a fruit than a vegetable.”

Last year’s degraded staghorn sumac seed pod next to an immature green seed pod from this year.

Toxic Sumac Look-Alikes

Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is considered a “look-alike” though really they’re only alike in name if you’re paying any attention. They’re not even in the same genus.

“The most important distinction is in the berries, which are whitish, waxy, hairless and hang in loose, grape-like clusters – quite unlike the berries of the edible sumacs. The leaves of poison sumac differ in being hairless and shiny with smooth margins. Poison sumac also differs in that it rarely grows in dense, pure stands, and it inhabits swamps. (Source)”

If you do manage to somehow mistake poison sumac for sumac, you’ll be sorry though. It causes skin reactions much worse than poison ivy and poison oak. If you’re looking at a stand, be sure to look at the leaves before you touch them.

Make sure the edges are serrated on the individual leaflets. Nonetheless, the presence of big red velvety seed pods is an easy giveaway, especially since poison oak berries are white and hang in bunches like grapes.

Toxic Look Alike

Leaves of Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) have smooth edges rather than serrations like staghorn sumac.

Processing Sumac Pods for Food

So now that you’ve harvested a few staghorn sumac “fruits,” how do you process them into food?

It’s actually the red velvet on the outside of the sumac berries that’s the tasty part. It has a wonderful sweet/tart citrus taste, that some liken to strawberry lemonade.

Since it already has that flavor, making a sumac lemonade is the obvious thing to do. The seeds and stalks contain bitter alkaloids that are extracted by hot water, so it’s important to only use cold water when making a sumac infusion.

The first step is to break apart the seed heads. In my first harvest, I just stuffed the whole pods into cold water and make lemonade that way…and it was horrible.

I cracked open the pods after and found them full of putrid dead worms and worm poop. Mmmm…worm lemonade. Don’t make that mistake, take them apart first. Start by pulling back individual bundles of seeds from the outside of the fruit clusters.

With a little gentle pressure, these break right off into your hand in tiny clusters.

Work slowly, because if you do hit a batch of worm poop you can keep the clean sumac separate if you’re careful.

Individual clusters can then be broken down into individual seeds, removing as much of the stem as possible.

All the flavor is in the fluff, so try to just get red velvet-covered seeds separated from everything else.

In the past, I’ve found a few sumac pods without worms, but those are rare in my harvests. Just about all of them are full of black worm poop, and this one was no exception.

As I pulled off the fluffy outer seeds I hit the poop layer right on schedule. That obviously, is where you stop. Keep pulling the clean seeds off the outside and leave the wormy parts for the compost heap.

Even a wormy sumac pod still has plenty of velvet-covered sumac seeds to harvest. Work around the outside pulling off clusters and separating them out from the stems and worms.

I generally get a good-sized handful of clean berries from each pod, even the worst wormy ones.

How to Use Staghorn Sumac

At this point, a simple overnight cold water extraction is the best way to get to the flavor. My friend Susan at Learning and Yearning suggests allowing sumac lemonade sit for just half an hour to extract, but I tend to like pretty tart lemonade with barely any sugar and a lot of lemon juice.

For your own tastes, you’ll have to work it out on your own. The berries aren’t particularly sweet, so add sugar to taste too.

I’ve seen a few sources that claim sumac was used by Native Americans to make cough syrup, and that a sumac infusion was gargled for sore throats. It is an excellent source of vitamin C, which would support its use for coughs and other illness.

For foragers in the northeast, where lemons are nowhere to be found, it’s a great option for extra vitamins year-round, and it’s a welcome change from the pine needles tea you’d otherwise be drinking for foraged vitamin C.

I’ve also heard it makes a great wine, and that’s next on my list to try this year.