GGW Plant Pick of The Month- Sesleria

– Posted in: Garden Plants

A couple of years ago while visiting the Lurie Garden at Millennium Park in Chicago I was attracted to several groupings of a striking yellow-green tufted grass that I did not recognize. It was compact in its growth habit (10-12″H x 10-12″W), and had silvery inflorescences that were about 18″H. It was growing in full sun yet maintained a bright, crisp color. I later determined it was Sesleria, or moor grass.

Lurie Garden- Chicago, Illinois

Sesleria seems to be an under-used grass, at least here in the Midwest. This summer, I saw several species growing in Piet Oudolf’s garden in the Netherlands and Roy Diblik’s garden (Northwind Perennial Farm) in Wisconsin. I realized I should start experimenting with Sesleria in my own projects. In an effort to raise awareness of the genus, I’ve chosen to highlight it as the GGW Plant Pick of The Month.

Sesleria is a genus of approximately 25 species, native to the moors and chalk highlands of Europe. According to the Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes, Sesleria is a cool-season grower; however its adaptation to the rocky, droughty, alkaline condition of its natural habitats makes it unusually tolerant of warm, dry conditions.

I’ll discuss several species of Sesleria that I have seen growing in the Midwest and that are available through mail order sources. USDA hardiness varies from source to source. I am in zone 5 and all seem to grow successfully here.

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Mid-summer blooms of autumn moor grass (Sesleria autumnalis). Image courtesy Piet & Anja Oudolf.

In the introductory paragraph I described a chartreuse grass growing at the Lurie Garden. It was autumn moor grass (Sesleria autumnalis), shown in the two photos above. This season, I planted a hundred or so at a commercial site and my own home. Sesleria is said to be evergreen. I am anxious to see how it performs this winter. Additionally, drought tolerance (once established) is a feature of the grass. Roy Diblik planted Sesleria autumnalis in his sharp-draining gravel garden in Wisconsin (image). It seemed to be performing very well!

Sesleria caerulea

Blue moor grass (Sesleria caerulea). Image courtesy Piet & Anja Oudolf.

Blue moor grass (Sesleria caerulea) is one of the most compact species. It forms basal mounds of foliage (6-8″ high and wide). The leaves are silvery blue on the top surface and dark green on the underside. An upright growth habit insures both colors are visible at the same time. In April and May, blackish flowers emerge with yellow pollen sacs, later fading to green and becoming inconspicuous. Blue moor grass is a wonderful noninvasive ground cover (best used in mass) and prefers full sun to light shade.

Blue-green Moor Grass (Sesleria heufleriana)

Blue-green moor grass (Sesleria heufleriana) with Geum, Heuchera at Northwind Perennial Farm, Burlington, WI.

Blue-green moor grass (Sesleria heufleriana) is similar to Sesleria caerulea but larger in foliage and flower (15″ high and wide). Its foliage is fresh green with silvery undersides and in late spring it produces dark purple flowers with creamy yellow pollen sacs. Plant in staggered groups with spring bulbs as this grass flowers early. It prefers full sun to light shade.

Nested Moor Grass (Sesleria nitida)

Nest moor grass (Sesleria nitida). Image courtesy Martin Pope.

Nest moor grass (Sesleria nitida) is native to central and southern Italy. It is the tallest of the species I’ve discussed, to 20″ high. Gray-green arching leaves support whitish-green, cone shaped summer blooms that bobble about in the breeze. Nest moor grass is useful as an edger or ground cover and prefers full sun to light shade.

If this is your first time visiting GGW Plant Pick of The Month and you’d like to participate, here is how it works. Simply post your comments below and a link to your own site, where you’ve posted photos of Sesleria and comments about your experiences working with the grass. Notes regarding successful planting combinations are especially welcome!

Adam Woodruff

Adam Woodruff

Adam Woodruff has practiced garden design since 1995. He trained as a Botanist at Eastern Illinois University. Woodruff attributes his unique design aesthetic, naturalism with a twist, to early college exposures to a diverse range of plants and environments (collecting trips in local prairies, field excursions to bogs in Canada and treks through forests of the Northeast). He also maintained the campus greenhouse, where he fell in love with tropicals. In recent years, influences on his designs include travels abroad to Europe, Asia and the Yucatan peninsula as well as observation of the work of great plantsmen such as Piet Oudolf and Roy Diblik. Woodruff’s designs often combine grasses, prairie natives and perennials with lush tropical foliage and seasonal blooms. This harmonious blending of plant material that is not conventionally grouped together is the ‘twist’ that makes his style unique.
Adam Woodruff

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how it grows November 23, 2009, 8:23 am

Thanks for introducing me to these interesting plants!

You are very welcome.

AW

Tyra in Vaxholm November 23, 2009, 9:10 am

Ah…how very beautifully composed (top). It is exciting with all the different structures. Thank you Adam for great tips and ideas.

Tyra

The top photo is Piet Oudolf’s work at the Lurie Garden. Glad you enjoyed the post Tyra.

AW

Kylee from Our Little Acre November 23, 2009, 2:53 pm

I have Seslaria autumnalis growing here at Our Little Acre, and it’s such a healthy, no-care plant for me! I love it! I’ve got heavy clay soil, but we’ve amended it some. Still pretty heavy, compared to some of the soils I’ve seen at botanical gardens. Ohhhhh, to have the funds to bring in some of THAT!

Thanks for the testimonial! Glad to hear of your success in heavy soil.

AW

Ilona November 23, 2009, 3:57 pm

You make the idea of this grass very tempting.

Sounds like it would grow well here, just so long as it is hardy enough. We sometimes have periods of frigid weather more like a zone 4 than the 5 where I live.

It is worth a try. I saw varying hardiness zones in my research. Good luck!

Adam

Mr. McGregor's Daughter November 23, 2009, 4:45 pm

I haven’t tried this grass, but it sounds like it would love my garden (Zone 5, very dry). Interplanting with small bulbs sounds terrific too.

Diana November 24, 2009, 8:43 am

Although we have many varieties of ornamental grasses in our garden, this one is unknown to us. Thank you for bringing it to our attention – we have been looking for something to begin planting on a south sloping hillside.

Diana. Glad you enjoyed the post and have found an interest in Sesleria. Good luck!

Adam

healingmagichands November 24, 2009, 11:57 am

That’s it. I’ve got to get me some Sesleria. I really love the chartreuse autunmalis, what a great color to add to the garden. I’ll bet it just glows in the evening sun. But that netida is pretty cool too, I love the shape of the heads.

healingmagichands November 24, 2009, 12:16 pm

So, when you post something on your plant pick of the month, maybe you ought to give us an idea of where we could acquire some of that plant. I’ve been looking around on google and so far I’ve found one nursery in Wisconsin that grows it.

Good point! In this case, check Bluestem Nursery for mail order. You might call Northwind Perennial Farm (262/248-8229) in Burlington, WI to see about mail order as well.

AW

Christine B. November 25, 2009, 1:30 am

The photos are great. Sesleria heufleriana is growing happily in my zone 3/4 garden in Alaska. I am inspired to try some new ones after reading your post.

Thank you for your comments and update on Zone 3/4 hardiness!

AW

Tony Spencer November 30, 2009, 3:42 pm

I’ve grown Sesleria autumnalis since hearing Piet Oudolf mention it a few years ago in Toronto as one of his favourite grasses.

A few essential points to contribute:
Stiff and upright habit with speckled white wand-like seedheads that appear around July and fade to black later in the year.
Excellent for edging and you can divide spring or fall. Drought tolerant. I’m in Zone 4. Grows in sun and shade making it extra useful.

Combinations: As per my photo link, it works terrifically in a naturalistic planting with Allium sphaerocephalon, a. pyrenaicum, Sedum ‘Matrona’, Echinacea ‘Rubinstern’ , Nepeta calamintha ‘Blue Cloud’ and Nigella damascena ‘Miss Jekyll’.

Hi Tony. Thanks for your comments/additions. I am pleased to hear of your success with S. autumnalis in Zone 4. Great suggestion for planting companions!

AW

Tony Spencer December 3, 2009, 10:05 am

Thanks Adam. Slight update with a better photo link. IMHO the combinations were one part planning, one part serendipity. Can’t get enough of the a. sphaerocephalon and Nigella mix (and I picked up some other more unusual alliums at the Grass Days in Hummelo which are now in the ground for next year.)