Sunday, April 24, 2011

Northern Sea Oats – a great match for your garden

Northern Sea Oats would make a great personal ad: pretty, flexible and low maintenance, likes relaxing in the sun or reclining in the shade (not sure about long walks on the beach), not over-bearing and not attractive to deer.  Sound appealing?

Most ornamental grasses do best in full sun but Northern Sea Oats grass, Chasmanthium latifolium, is very adaptable to a wide variety of growing conditions including shade. It’s a really unique grass with interesting seed heads.  Looking at the seed heads you are immediately reminded of fish skeletons hanging in clusters from each stalk or also flattened oats but I prefer the fish comparison. 

It is a clump forming warm season grass growing to about 3’ tall by 1-2’ wide. The leaf blades are a pleasing light green color with a bamboo-like look. The seed heads grow in clusters starting out green and then turn copper-bronze in the fall finally turning a light tan or straw color.  They will stay on the grass late into the winter adding much winter interest. 

Native to the southeastern US and northeastern Mexico, it’s a perennial grass that grows naturally in wooded and riparian areas, but for us can thrive in full sun to partial shade from dry to moist well-draining soils.  It does need occasional supplemental moisture in dry spots.  It is adaptable to most soil types and also grows well in containers. It is considered deer resistant, hardy to zone 5 although I’m going to try and grow it in my zone 4 garden this year in a sunny spot.

Rick Darke, author of Timber Press Pocket Guide to Ornamental Grasses, lists Chasmanthium latifolium as, “a versatile grass for formal accent, groups, sweeps, groundcover, naturalizing, or container display.” That sounds like a very useful plant! Author John Greenlee, of The American Meadow Garden, notes a private garden in Missouri that uses it in a meadow planting with lilies and sedges for a naturalistic look. 

One of the things you’ll either like or dislike about this grass is that it likes to reseed.  I find that the seedlings are easily controlled and pulled where you don’t want them.  Cut the grass back once in the early spring before new growth appears.  If you don’t want the seedlings you can also deadhead this grass before the seeds scatter in the fall. 

There are some fun things you can do with dried grasses including using them as a long-lasting cut arrangement.  You might also use the seed heads to make a bookmark or a greeting card.  Because these seed heads are already flattened they are easily pressed.

For additional ideas on decorating with ornamental grasses, visit