Fireworks for Fall

– Posted in: Plant info, What's up/blooming

Molinia caerulea 'Skyracer' October 2004, one year in the ground - photo by Craig LevyThere is an explosion happening in the garden and its name is Molinia. With its unique flowers, Molinia separates itself from the crowd.

With my wife’s lead, we have always found room in our gardens for ornamental grasses. There are very few we wouldn’t invite, so we happily picked up this little fellow at a local nursery. And it was little back then, looking more like a stray tuft of lawn potted up in error. The label was interesting and because we had never heard of it before – always a hallmark of plant nerdism – we brought it home. We actually bought two of them but didn’t know it at the time. The plant in the picture had the erroneous label and The Age of Aquarius must have been playing because it could not have been more ideally sited, all by accident.

It has the common name “moor grass”, though I have not heard it being used. Its formal name is Molinia caerulea ‘Skyracer’. When said together, the botanical name will flow off your tongue. The first name is pronounced moe-lee-nee-uh and is usually referred by it and not a common name. Don’t be intimidated by the species name but pronounce it sir-oo-lee-uh and it means blue, in reference to the color of the leaves early in the season. Like many blue-leaved Hostas, Molinia’s leaves will later green up.

And its leaves are truly magnificent. They are long and erupt from the center crown. Up and then down they flow, like a botanical waterfall. I can’t think of any hardy grass with similar foliage. But there is another plant that produces a similar effect. Yuccas and Agaves are considered “woody lilies” and another member of that group is Nolina. When young, the two plants are very similar. Hmm, Molinia and Nolina. Could the plant namers be having fun with us? I just made that up but it’s funny to think about.

In late summer Molinia will start producing its flowers. At first they are nestled among the leaves and are very ho-humish. But they quickly push upward until they are towering, at seven feet and taller. After the first hard frost, Molinia will change color to straw. It is the only grass I trim back in the fall because the leaves and stems quickly shatter, scattering its mess about.

I’m guessing this variety was named because the flowering culms rapidly ascend, looking like skyrockets exploding above the leaves. But when I look at my plant that isn’t what I see. Mine reaches upward with long thin fingers, intent on detaching an important and vital part of itself skyward, celestial-bound.

About the Author

I started in 1977 growing plants at wholesale nurseries and a wholesale seed company in California. In 1992 I started volunteering (in the nursery, of course!) at Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco where I met my wife. My wife is originally from upstate and we moved here in 2002. It took at least two years of living here for me to fully understand our property and to take advantage and work with our microclimate. Although growing zone maps show us to be in 5, we are realistically a 4b. I am inordinately proud, in a smarmy kind of way, of how many of the plants we brought with us have thrived. Coming from a zone 9 has been quite an adjustment for all of us. But we are thriving and enjoy the beauty and what the land gives us everyday. USDA Hardiness Zone: 4b/5a Location: rural; Central Leatherstocking near Cooperstown, New York Geographic type: riverine valley Soil type: Chenango alluvial – shallow clay and highly stony Experience level: 28 years professionally wholesale and retail, no longer in the business Particular interests: native plants and ecosystems, flowering and berry producing shrubs, home-grown foods, maples, birches, willows, ornamental grasses, filipendulas, iris, ligularias, persicarias, asclepias, artemisia, asters, arisaemas, hardy geraniums, euphorbias, eupatoriums, origanums, lysimachias, eryngiums, lilies, and visiting nurseries

In its own way, frost may be one of the most beautiful things to happen in your garden all year . . . Don’t miss it. Like all true beauty, it is fleeting. It will grace your garden for but a short while this morning. . . . For this moment, embrace frost as the beautiful gift that it is.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

Kristin Ohlson August 23, 2006, 4:02 pm

I’m glad to know that better gardeners than I fail with the occasional variety. I’ve failed with many, although I’m quite sure that it’s usually my own fault. I don’t water enough– I’ve never gotten used to the idea that one should have to water in lush green Ohio. It made sense in dry California, but not here.

But would my stinginess with water make the foliage of some of my plants turn a duller color–as in red returning to plain old green?

Craig Levy August 23, 2006, 10:43 am

Relax Kathy; it’s the variety, not you. I have the variegated Calamagrostis ‘Overdam’ and it’s okay but it always suffers when compared C. ‘Karl Foerster’. Too many times, new plants are introduced that should never have made it to market. If a plant isn’t a clear improvement or an interesting variation of an existing variety it should not be in the marketplace. But the pressure on hybridizers and plant producers is high. They are always asked what their new varieties are and what do they hope to introduce in the future. The attention is always on the new rather than the best.

An example is Echinacea. There are a lot of new varieties being brought out and many of them are not truly great. They may have yellow, orange, red, or double flowers but are they going to be wonderful garden plants? Buyers should be cautious, the best will still be around and the weak ones will be trashed. I have an E. ‘Prairie Frost’, paid good money for it, and am considering composting it. Yes, it has variegated leaves but the plant is weak, stunted, throws out too many solid green stems, and has weirdly shortened petals. Ok, I like the petals but the weak growing habit is making me lose interest in it.

beth rosenthal August 23, 2006, 9:06 am

Nice post Craig. I enjoy your writing and am myself a big fan of ornamental grasses. I know they are more popular in other parts of the country and wonder why they are not favored here.
Maybe with all the vacant land and fields,local people see they as weedy or don’t really see them at all.The space alloted to them at local nurseries is always small and often seems an after thought, more like they have to offer them rather than they want to. I think I may like them best in the winter months when the birds perch on them or when they bend under the weight of newly fallen snow, adding interest to the quiet, sleeping landscape. I know I will always have them in my garden.

Kathy Purdy August 23, 2006, 9:02 am

Huh. I have Molinia caerulea ‘Variegata,’ and I’m lucky if it gets a foot tall. Of course, variegated plants usually aren’t as vigorous as their non-variegated counterparts, but still . . .I wonder if it needs more sun?