A Native Ornamental Grass With a Unique Color: ‘Purple Tears’ Switchgrass

Fine Gardening – Issue 198
A Native Ornamental Grass with a Unique Color: 'Purple Tears' fountain grass
Photo: courtesy of Hoffman Nursery

I happened to be looking in a magazine recently when this caught my eye: “the Piet Oudolf Collection.” Piet started as a designer and plantsman in Hummelo, Netherlands. His gardens use lots of American native plants, yet they don’t quite look like our designers’ landscapes. He has created numerous outstanding gardens in Europe, and he has been instrumental in creating the High Line in New York City and the Lurie Garden in Chicago. As I looked over the plant collection with his name on it, I became intrigued with ‘Purple Tears’ switchgrass.

The foliage of this grass is light green, and in late summer to early fall you will be delighted to see gray-tipped flowering spikes with a distinctive purple seed head. It tends to be a heavy bloomer, which makes it even more showy. The habit is upright, but with the seed heads it turns into a great see-through plant.

Switchgrass happens to be my go-to tall grass for the back of a border, but ‘Purple Tears’ only gets around 3 feet tall (4 feet when it is in bloom), so it fits the bill in almost any sunny border situation. Piet likes to use big sweeps of plants, but for most of us, three to five plants is enough to emphasize the outstanding color contrast between the leaves and the seeds—and to get all the exciting movement that big grasses provide. The graceful swaying with the slightest breeze is true poetry in motion.

‘Purple Tears’ is a warm-season grass that meets the requirement of most gardeners: it is easy to grow. It can take sun or partial shade, it can thrive in soil that is moist or dry as long as it’s well drained, it plays flopsy and mopsy when you overfertilize or overwater, and it needs no special care in winter. Doesn’t this sound like a perfect beginner’s plant or a plant that will flourish with benign neglect? It is so adaptable and functional that it can grow anywhere from a parking lot to a rain garden. Now that’s true flexibility for designers and homeowners. All gardeners love plants like this.

‘Purple Tears’ switchgrass
Illustration: Elara Tanguy

‘Purple Tears’ switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Purple Tears’)

Zones: 4–10
Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil
Native range: Dutch selection of North American species


Stephanie Cohen has spent most of her life trialing, speaking about, and teaching all things plants. The author of several books, she lectures extensively around North America.

Digging Dog Nursery, Albion, CA; 707-937-1130;
Plant More Natives, Richmond, VA;

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