chapter THREE

Success with Desert Plants


lush & efficient
Ornamental grasses are often overlooked elements in a lush, water-efficient landscape. This is a shame, because grasses add such diversity and texture. They can soften the rigid outlines of cacti and succulents, and reinforce the arching, fountainlike theme offered by ocotillo or vase-shaped trees. Grasses also add color, depending on the species and season. Some have striking fall foliage, while others have persistent seed heads that dangle like golden ornaments for several months.

Ornamental grasses need only two things from the homeowner: regular water to help keep them looking good, and a “haircut” once each year in late winter.

Festuca glauca

blue fescue

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(F. cinerea). A blue-gray, ornamental grass, growing in roundish tufts to 1 foot high, spreading to less than 1 foot wide (photo opposite, bottom left). Plants create an interesting pattern in borders or in the foreground of taller perennials and shrubs. Seedheads rise above clumps in the fall, creating a shaggy effect. Will not tolerate wet, poorly drained soil. Native to Europe.

Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’

japanese blood grass

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Forms upright clumps 1 to 2 feet high, spreading to 1 foot wide. Leaves emerge green in spring and redden as the weather warms. Best color occurs in a sunny exposure. This cultivar rarely flowers. Spreads by underground runners. Native to Japan.

Muhlenbergia capillaris

pink muhley

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Plant this traffic stopper for its graceful, fluffy, purple to pink plumes. They put on a show of color in late summer and fall. Locate plants where the sun will backlight the flower heads. Grows 3 to 4 feet high and as wide. This large size makes it excellent for large home landscapes and public areas such as golf courses.Native to Texas and northern Mexico. ‘Regal Mist’ is a popular cultivar (photo opposite, top left).

Muhlenbergia emersleyi

bull grass

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Graceful, evergreen leaves clump to 4 feet high or more with equal spread. Delicate, loose, reddish flower plumes reach a foot or two above the leaves in the fall. As they age they turn a cream color. Ideal among boulders (photo opposite, top right). Prefers afternoon shade in the Coachella Valley. Native to Texas.

Muhlenbergia lindheimeri

lindheimer muhley

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Strong vertical form with slender leaves. Large clumps reach 5 feet high and as wide. Dense, fluffy, golden plumes evoke a dwarfish version of pampas grass. Accepts some shade. Native to Texas. An improved cultivar is ‘Autumn Glow’.

Muhlenbergia rigens, deer grass.

Muhlenbergia rigens

deer grass

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This workhorse grass becomes a graceful, fountain-shaped mound 3 to 4 feet high, spreading 4 to 5 feet wide. Lush, rich green foliage is a softening element in the landscape. Slender, upright flower spikes 1 foot above the foliage in fall make a striking contrast to the curving mound (photo below). Accepts some shade. Native to southwestern U.S.

Nassella tennuissima, Mexican thread grass.

Nassella tennuissima

mexican thread grass

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(Stipa tenuissima). A fine-textured, billowy grass that forms upright clumps 2 feet high and as wide (photo below). Even a mild breeze will stir the leaves and delicate seed heads, adding motion to the landscape. Outstanding in a mass planting. Accepts some shade. Native to New Mexico.

Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’

red fountain grass

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Forms a large, dense clump 5 feet high and as wide with medium-textured foliage and coppery seed heads. The species has become a rampant pest in parts of the U.S. Before seeds mature, cut off flower heads, place them in a plastic bag and throw them away to prevent reseeding. However, ‘Rubrum’ only occasionally sets seeds. Native to tropical Africa.

Brought to you by Coachella Valley Water District