Ornamental grasses in Australia may not be quite the trendy ‘must haves’ they once were, but when you’re looking for something to bring beauty and grace to your garden without adding to your workload, ornamental native grasses are winners every time.
Native ornamental grasses can be used to soften hard textures or to fill large spaces. They don’t mind slopes, look good in gravel gardens and since they change in appearance through the seasons, they create year-round interest.
The specifics of ornamental grasses
Ornamental grasses reached their peak of popularity in the 1990s. Fashions change but clever gardeners understand that regardless of trends, native plants are easier to work with than introduced species that may struggle with the climate or the local pest and disease population.
Native ornamental grasses in Australia continue to be a popular choice because unlike introduced grasses and other plants they generally settle into the garden very quickly. Ornamental native grasses from Australia are tough, they send down deep roots quickly and once they’ve done so, they’re very drought tolerant. Many species will cope with both extreme heat and frost. As an added bonus, native grasses have developed and evolved within the Australian ecosphere, which means that they’re resistant to most pests and diseases and they produce seeds that attract birds and other Australian wildlife to your garden.
Over the recent years, plant breeders have worked with native Australian ornamental grasses to produce specialist varieties that will thrive in specifically challenging conditions such as areas close to the coast where salt-laden winds are common.
Types of ornamental grasses
Ornamental grasses for Australian gardens are available in a range of heights, sizes and colours. Many of the taller decorative grasses in Australia have stunning plumes which add a sense of movement to the garden as they catch the breeze.
Other Australian native ornamental grasses have variegated leaves or foliage that changes colour with the seasons. Smaller grass varieties can be used as edging, rockery or border plants, some even have a role in controlling soil erosion.
With so many different ornamental grass varieties available, it’s simply a case of choosing the ones with the growing habits and appearance to suit your needs. To help you do that, we’ve compiled an Australian native grasses list with some details about each plant.
Tall ornamental grasses
First on our Australian grasses list are some of the popular types of tall ornamental grasses. Place one of these tall native grasses in a spot where they’ll catch the evening sun to maximise the drama of their beautiful seedheads or use tall grass plants to screen your garden for privacy.
Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides)
Fountain Grass typically grows to around 90 cm in height, though there are both dwarf forms and taller varieties available. The foliage grows in dark green mounded clumps turning to golden yellow or beige in autumn.
The flowering season ranges from early summer through to late autumn depending on the variety. The flowering heads are soft and cascading, coming in colours ranging from reddish purple to coppery tan.
Like most of the tall ornamental grasses in Australia, Fountain grass is drought tolerant once established and requires very little care. Grows best in dry soils and full sun but will tolerate partial shade and moist soil, so long as it is well-drained.
Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra)
Growing to a height of 1.5 metres with a spread of 0.5 meters, Kangaroo Grass is one of the most distinctive types of ornamental grasses in Australia. Individual leaves can be up to 50 cm long and are grey-green most of the year, brightening to an orangey-brown in summer.
Kangaroo grass flowers between December and February, producing large red-brown spikelets on branched stems. The spikelets have black awns around the seeds. When in flower, this is one of the most easily recognisable tall ornamental grasses in Australia.
Kangaroo grass in the garden doesn’t require a lot of maintenance. Dead leaves can be raked out if required and the plant can be cut back in spring to encourage new growth.
Tassel Cord Rush (Baloskion tetraphyllum)
Tassel Cord Rush grows in dense clumps to around 1.5 metres in height. It produces bright green foliage topped with attractive feathered tips.
During spring the leaves can show some red to brown colouration. Flowering heads are produced in spring or summer and are red or copper coloured.
Unlike many varieties of ornamental grass in Australia, the Tassel Cord Rush thrives in shady areas and will do well in moist soil or even if planted in shallow water. It requires little to no maintenance. Tassel Cord Rush can get a little untidy in appearance, this is easily remedied by pruning it back to half its size every 3 to 4 years.
Stout Bamboo Grass (Austrostipa ramosissima)
Bamboo grass is a giant among the tall grasses of Australia, reaching heights of up to 2.5 metres. It has soft feather-like seedheads which can appear at any time of the year. The foliage is bottle green, sometimes with white horizontal stripes. The flowering heads can reach up to 50 cm and are green or cream in colour.
Bamboo grass enjoys sunny or lightly shaded locations, dry or well-drained soil and will tolerate drought and a moderate degree of frost. The plant requires little maintenance and since it grows from underground rhizomes it will rejuvenate even if cut back hard.
Small ornamental grasses
Not all ornamental grasses need a large garden or lots of space. There are plenty of small native grasses in Australia too. Most of these plants can be grown as single specimens, in a rockery for example or can be grouped together in mass plantings.
This genus features many small native grasses. Depending on the variety Fastucas can be gold, green or blue-grey, flowers can range from insignificant to airy fronds that almost create an aura around the plant body.
One popular form is Fastuca glauca, commonly known as blue fescue grass. It forms neat clumps around 20 cm high. Fastuca are tolerant to drought, will cope with a degree of frost and even do well in coastal regions with salty air.
Fastuca does best in full sun and looks good in a rockery. Requires little to no maintenance but if the plant starts to look ragged, it responds well to light pruning.
The leaves of Lomandra plants are generally shiny and often much firmer than many other types of grass. Popular forms include ‘Little Con’ which is lime green and grows to around 40 cm, and Tankia Lomandra which is a deeper green reaching around 50-60 cm in height and up to 65 cm in width.
Tankia Lomandra has pretty yellow flowers from April to October, enjoys full sun but will tolerate light shade. When freshly planted Lomandras should be watered as required until well-established, which should take 2 or 3 months. After that, this grass requires little maintenance.
It does best in well-drained soils and copes with both drought and frost. Tankia Lomandra benefits from pruning every 3 years or so to keep it looking neat.
Pennstripe (Pennstripe Pennisetum)
There are many small forms of Pennisetum, too. Pennstripe is an especially striking form, growing to around 45 cm in height and spread. This grass has narrow, arched, variegated leaves and through summer into autumn also has feathery foxtail-like plumes.
This is an easy-care plant that tolerates a wide range of soils including poorly-drained clay and has good tolerance to both drought and frost.
The plumes show the best effect when the plants are grouped together. The leaves can discolour in winter in cooler regions, this can be fixed by cutting the plant back to around a third of its height to encourage fresh growth.
Coastal Tussock Grass (Poa poiformis)
This salt-tolerant small grass grows to around 45 cm in height and spread, and has vivid blue-green arching leaves. Costal Tussock Grass is grown mostly for its foliage which contrasts well with other plants rather than its flower.
Maintenance requirements are minimal, water as required for the first 2-3 months until the grass has had a chance to put its roots down. After this Costal Tussock grass needs little care beyond a trim back to 15 cm above the ground in autumn or late winter.
Looks good in mass plantings, happiest in full sun but will tolerate partial shade. It is also salt, wind, drought and frost tolerant. Sometimes it is used to prevent soil erosion on exposed sites.
Tips on landscaping with ornamental grasses
Landscaping with ornamental grasses isn’t much different from landscaping with any other plant. One thing to look out for, however, is that when you use Australian native grasses, you start with the advantage of knowing that the specimens you’re using are suited for the climate and environment.
Still, it makes sense to take some tips from the pros so that you get the maximum return from the time and money you’ve invested:
- Work with nature – Select plants suited for the soil type and light levels at the location where you want to do your grass landscaping.
- Mix several types of grass together – This will allow you to get interesting contrasts in colour or texture, but make sure the different species have similar care needs.
- Use tall, late-flowering grasses at the back of a mixed border – This way you’ll have something attractive to look at when the summer flowers have faded.
- Use small ornamental grasses to edge borders – They look good all year round and those with strong plumes are stunning when in flower.
- Native ornamental grasses are easy-care plants that are tolerant to the Australian climate and usually not troubled by pests or diseases.
- Ornamental grasses can provide year-round interest, especially if you choose varieties with foliage that changes colour with the seasons.
- Some ornamental grasses have striking plumage. Even those that don’t can still be a valuable food source for birds and other native wildlife.
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