Sunday, September 10, 2023

A Short History of Ornamental Grasses

World's Fair Pavilion in Forest Park, in St. Louis

Ornamental non-bamboo grasses have become such a ubiquitous feature of suburban and urban landscapes nowadays, that it might surprise some people that their widespread use is a relatively new phenomenon here in the USA.

This was brought home to me after I visited the World's Fair Pavilion in Forest Park, St. Louis last week.

The park itself is amazingly large, but what interested me most was a building that was surrounded by large stands of beautiful ornamental grasses. This World's Fair Pavilion was built in 1909 from proceeds of the World's Fair that was held in 1904. It's built on top of a hill and is surrounded by a large expanse of lawn and other plants.

Gigantic Panicum virgatum in Forest Park, St. Louis

The largest Panicum virgatum specimens I have ever seen in masses graced both sides of the area in front of the pavilion. There were also stands of Miscanthus sinensis, as well as the usual stately Calamagrostis. These ornamental grasses dominate the landscape today, but pictures of the same pavilion from the 1930s showed no signs of the stately and graceful grasses. Instead, shrubs and bushes and trees were the norm (see image below).

The pavilion in the 1930s. From the Missouri Historical Society. Note the lack of ornamental grasses.

The drastic change in the landscaping is significant. Although the use of bamboo for landscape decoration was popular even during ancient times, ornamental non-bamboo grasses did not enjoy the same popularity. However, during the 1930s, the renowned  German nurseryman, Karl Foerster pushed for their use in Germany and Europe. He collected grass seeds and plants from all over the world, and after cultivating them in his nurseries he introduced them to the market.

Calamagrostis to the left, Panicum virgatum to the right. In Forest Park, St. Louis

Among the many plants he introduced, perhaps his most famous creation is the outstanding ornamental grass Calamagrostis × acutiflora 'Karl Foerster', which he released to the market in 1950 as a natural hybrid of C. epigejos (native to Europe, Asia and Africa) and C. arundinacea (native to Eurasia, China and India).

Calamagrostis in background, Cenchrus setaceus in foreground, in Colorado

This rise in the use of ornamental grasses in Europe was not mirrored in the USA until much later, but various growers were instrumental in pushing for this new paradigm.

In the early 1960s, Kurt Bluemel began the introduction of ornamental grasses into America through his nursery in Maryland, called Kurt Bluemel Inc. Educated in Germany and Switzerland, Bluemel was passionate about grasses, and by the time he passed away decades later, he was well known as Der Gras K├Ânig, the Grass King. 

Kurt Bluemel. From Baltimore Sun.

He is said to have carried his first grass specimens in his luggage when he came to America, and his collaboration with Wolfgang Oehme, a German-born landscape architect based in Towson, was highly influential in creating a growing appreciation for ornamental grasses in the country. Some of his notable works include creating the savannas at Disney World's Animal Kingdom, and Busch Gardens. 

Panicum virgatum

By the 1980s, the momentum behind ornamental grasses had finally reached a crux, and an influx of growers finally pushed it into the mainstream. In 1986, John and Jill Hoffman established the Hoffman Nursery in North Carolina, which specialized in ornamental grasses. 

John Hoffman. From Hoffman Nursery.

John's interest in ornamental grasses was stoked during a visit to Germany, where he met the plant breeder Ernst Pagels. Pagels was an enthusiastic supporter of grass-filled gardens, and this along with the support of his mentor,  J.C. Raulston at North Carolina State University, fueled his passion. Today, Hoffman Nursery is one of the largest suppliers of ornamental and native grasses in the country.

Miscanthus sinensis

The trend towards landscaping with grasses then moved from the East Coast to the West Coast through the efforts of people like horticulturalist John Greenlee. In order to complete an oak savanna project in California in the 1980s, he travelled to Kurt Bluemel's Nursery in Maryland, where he was astounded by the hundreds of varieties of ornamental grasses that were on display. He ended up trucking a load of the grasses in a tractor trailer from Maryland to California, and after a stint in Brazil with the renowned landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx (who is also held in high esteem in the aroid community), he finally opened the first ornamental grass nursery in the West Coast.

John Greenlee. From Greenlee Meadow Collection.

Fast forward to today, when people routinely use ornamental grasses both in residential and commercial landscaping. And although many of the varieties used are the showy exotics (such as Miscanthus sinensis and Cenchrus setaceus), the use of native grasses as ornamentals (such as Trypsacum dactyloides in Florida, and Bouteloua gracilis in Colorado) is also widespread.

Bouteloua gracilis in Colorado

Meanwhile, new varieties and species continue to be introduced into the market. Not only do they contribute linear structure to a design, but their ease of maintenance, resistance to herbivores like deer, and their ability to impart movement to an otherwise static landscape, make ornamental grasses perfect components for any project.

Looking out from the pavilion in Forest Park, St. Louis. White flowerheads are Miscanthus sinensis cultivars

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