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Preview: Get to Know Molinia

It’s well-behaved, hardy as heck, and stunningly beautiful, so find the best one for you

Fine Gardening - Issue 184
Molinia caerulea ssp. arundinacea 'Skyracer' (tall purple moor grass).

Grasses are dynamic garden plants. Whether large or small, for structure, motion, sound, and even light, grasses are unparalleled in their effect, and their charm increases tenfold when massed. Molinia, also known as purple moor grass, is no exception; in fact, its fountainesque form and tall stature exemp­lify the best attributes of grasses. It is especially prized in Europe—evident in so many of the cultivar names—but somewhat underappreciated here. With Miscanthus sinensis rightfully out of favor due to its invasive nature, molinia merits greater attention.

Promoting nonnative grasses can be a hot-button issue. I get it in the case of miscanthus and even fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides and cvs., Zones 4–9), but from my experience, molinia isn’t worri­some and is a good substitute for wayward grasses. Of course, I concede to anyone who has had it escape in their landscape; molinia has found its way into scattered natural areas in the Northeast, northern Wisconsin, and western Oregon. By most measures, it’s probably not a thug, but caution is prudent. That said, I have never discovered a seedling in our trial. Based on this and its undeniable good looks, a molinia (or three) might be just the fine-textured treasure your garden has been missing.

The wide, arching leaves of ’Bergfreund’ have a coarser appearance—I think it’s even a little wild-looking—than cultivars with thinner vertical foliage. Despite the coarse-textured leaves, the tall arching flower stems make it unexpectedly graceful. The dense flower clusters, up to 25 inches long, turn from green-and-purple flowers in summer to coppery seed heads by midfall. In late fall, the floral stems become pinkish orange as the leaves turn yellow. At 68 inches tall with flowers, ‘Bergfreund’ is a respectable size, and catching it backlit by the setting sun is a real treat.

To read the full article and learn more about molinia, subscribe to receive your digital copy of the newest issue of Fine Gardening magazine. 

Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Bergfreund’
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