5 ornamental grasses for shade

Lorraine Flanigan

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Japanese forest grass (Photo from Flickr by Megan Hanson)
Japanese forest grass (Photo from Flickr by Megan Hanson)
Japanese forest grass (Photo from Flickr by Megan Hanson)

When we think of ornamental grasses, visions of sun-kissed meadows and sky-blue prairies come to mind. But some grasses and grassy look-alikes hail from shadier parts, and in the wild, they’re found along woodland streams, on cool mountainsides or on moody moors. With their grassy blades, airy plumes and sometimes variegated or golden foliage, they offer a variety of textures and colours in the shade garden. Here are five to try and one worthy wannabe. (Dimensions are height x width.)

Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium and cvs.)

It’s hard to know what’s more beautiful about this native grass: its graceful, bamboo-like blades or the shimmery, tan to bronze flowers that flutter in the wind. Although the species can self-seed prolifically, a new cultivar with green-and-white variegated foliage called ‘River Mist’ is more restrained. Tolerates dry shade. 40 x 24 in. (1 m x 60 cm), Zone 5

Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra)

Once you’ve seen a woodland border edged with cascading mounds of Japanese forest grass, you’ll want your own. This elegant grass grows best in moist soil; the white variegated ‘Albostriata’ does better in part to full shade than does the chartreuse variegated ‘Aureola’, which appreciates more sun. 24 x 28 in. (60 x 70 cm), Zone 5

Millet (Milium spp. and cvs.)

Not to be confused with the burgundy-leaved ornamental annual millet seen in fall containers, this is a millet of a different colour, form and disposition. The most common one is M. effusum ‘Aureum’, or golden wood millet. Grown for its yellow spring foliage, it’s a good edger in cool, moist locations. 14 x 10 in. (35 x 25 cm), Zone 5

Moor grass (Molinia spp. and cvs.)

Light and frothy, moor grasses prefer sun but tolerate part shade. They vary in height, from the imposing ‘Skyracer’ (7 ft. x 32 in. / 2 m x 80 cm) to the compact ‘Moorhexe’ (24 x 24 in. / 60 x 60 cm) and ‘Variegata’ (24 x 18 in. / 60 x 45 cm). Site these grasses against a background of dark-leaved plants or where the softly arching stems will be backlit by the setting sun or dawn’s early rays. Zone 4 (‘Skyracer’), Zone 3 (‘Moorhexe’ and ‘Variegata’)

Blue moor grass (Seslaria caerulea)

This easygoing clumping grass adds a welcome touch of grey-blue foliage to the partly shaded garden, providing a perfect colour echo for hostas such as ‘Halcyon’ and ‘Blue Angel’. 6 x 10 in. (15 x 25 cm), Zone 4

Faux grass: Sedge (Carex spp. and cvs.)

Faux grass: Sedge (Carex spp. and cvs.) looks like a grass and acts like a grass; It’s a grass-loving shade gardener’s salvation. Tough, beautiful and available in a wide variety of colours and forms, from the quirky cinnamon-tufted leatherleaf sedge (C. buchanii) to the coveted Bowles Golden (C. elata ‘Aurea’), sedges are must-have plants for the shade garden. Use them as groundcovers, edgers or in groups, Zones 4 to 6.

Read more about ornamental grasses on Garden Making

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1 thought on “5 ornamental grasses for shade”

  1. Hi looking for shade grasses for the front of my house. I live west of Calgary Alberta canada so it can be cold in the winter What would you suggest for partiially sunny in the morning and then shady rest of day? Taller grasses would be great for the back of the garden with shorter in front Must be hardy grass. Thank you


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