Why the Fountain Grass Must Go

Bunchgrass in southern California

photo by Roger Klemm

Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum) is a bunchgrass from Africa that is widely planted as an ornamental plant in portions of the United States with warm winters.  It is a tough, vigorous plant that will tolerate adverse conditions of heat and drought.  It does not appear to suffer from any pests or diseases, and many people appreciate its graceful seed heads produced in profusion over the spring and summer months.

The downside is that in California, Fountain Grass has no natural enemies and readily out-competes other plants.  It is invasive, and if you plant it in your yard, you will soon have seedlings of Fountain Grass popping up wherever there is bare soil.  It will even grow vigorously in the gaps between sections of concrete and bedrock of natural slopes.  Its seeds are carried long distances in the wind, so if your neighbor has it in their yard, it will eventually end up in yours, and the nearby natural areas.  If you are in a fire hazard area, it is especially dangerous, as it dries out early in the summer and becomes extremely flammable.

Fountain Grass readily moves in to wild areas and displaces the native plants that would otherwise provide habitat for the birds, butterflies, lizards, and multitude of other creatures that make their homes in this wonderful place we call California.  Its shallow roots don’t stabilize slopes like many of the native plants it displaces.  It is more flammable than the native vegetation, and over a longer period of the year, so contributes to more frequent wildfires (as do many other exotic plants, including Mexican Feather Grass, Pampas Grass, Vinca, Lantana and Pride of Madeira).  When fires occur too frequently, areas of chaparral and coastal sage scrub get converted to weed fields as the native plants don’t have enough time to recover between fires.

Bunchgrasses along the freeway

Bunchgrasses along the freeway. Photo by Roger Klemm

The City of Los Angeles renovated the Sunland/Tujunga/Shadow Hills entry garden at Sunland Boulevard and the 210 freeway about a decade ago.  As specified in the plans, the landscaping was sensible – Oak and Sycamore trees, some flowers around the sign, and some wildflowers in the background.  Somewhere along the way, Fountain Grass was substituted for the wildflowers.  This invasive exotic plant has taken over where the flowers were planted near the sign, and now obstructs the view of the sign from the street.  It has also moved in to the next door neighbor’s yard, and it is only a matter of time before it reaches your yard.

It’s time to stop this weed.  The local flora is very diverse – in the nearby Verdugo Hills, there are over 300 kinds of native plants documented in the last decade.  Roger Klemm and Ricky Grubb, native plant enthusiasts from the Shadow Hills and Sunland communities, decided to replace the “anti-native” Fountain Grass with some of the local biodiversity.  They are working to renovate this community entrance garden into a showcase of the local flora, using the best of these 300+ kinds of plants that clothe the local hills in a mosaic of shrubs and wildflowers that bloom in different colors and at different times throughout the year.  One of the criteria in selecting plants was to find those plants in the wild that look halfway decent in July and August, and aren’t “room-sized” chaparral shrubs.  There are some that fit that description, and the hope is that the new plantings will invite people to use these plants in their yards.

With permission from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the Fond Land Preservation Foundation to collect seeds and cuttings from plants in nearby wild areas, Roger now has several hundred plants growing in pots in his yard, and with the Sunland/Tujunga Neighborhood Council, is in the process of adopting this spot from the City.  With help from the City Councilman’s office, the Theodore Payne Foundation, and FormLA Landscaping, the plan is to remove the Fountain Grass and replace it with truly local native plants in the fall.  Some of the plants to look forward to in the garden include Arctostaphylos glauca, A. glandulosa, Ceanothus crassifolius, C. oliganthus, Delphinium cardinale, Dendromecon rigida, Epilobium (Zauschneria) cana, Trichostema lanatum, and Xylococcus bicolor.  Once the plants get established, the butterflies and hummingbirds will join in to bring the garden alive.

If you have questions or comments, would like to know more about the project, or would like to help with the removal of the Fountain Grass or planting of the local native plants, please contact Roger at treehuggers@ca.rr.com.

Roger Klemm
August 2012

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One thought on “Why the Fountain Grass Must Go

  1. wow! all of these articles are GREAT! must-reads all! I’m particularly greatful for the pennisetum article as I’m seeing them pop up in enormous numbers along the big sur coast, and they seem to be wildly popular amongst homeowners. we have some very beautiful native grasses which are spectacular and easy to grow which would be much better for california. I hope that this article makes it’s way to John Greenlee’s desk. he definitely pushes the Pennisetums and he is known as the one to listen to for ornamental AND native grasses. amongst my favorite native grasses are: Muhlenbergia rigens – deergrass – plant in groups of at least 3-5 and give each of them 4-5′. Sporoboles airoides – Alkali Sacaton – plant en masse for a really nice, late summer treat – when they flower, it look like low, hazy clouds over the meadow. Aristida purpurea – Purple Three-awn – a beautiful, purplish red bouquet on this small, well-behaved bunchgrass. a great substitute for Mexican Feathergrass – Stipa tenuissima. Calamagrostis foliosa – Leafy Reedgrass – purple and deep green leaves and BEAUTIFUL, fat and soft flowers on these low bunchgrasses – probably one of the most beautiful bunchgrasses in the world! Festuca californica – Cal Fescue – large clumps of spiky bunchgrasses which stay a beautiful glaucous green if you give them a little bit of water every couple wks or so. on a slightly shady slope, this tough, long-lived grass is perfect and prevents erosion. use en masse or individually. this grass is great for planting next to manzanitas to get them to establish well. Hairgrasses – Deschampsias – beautiful, large, very fine grasses which turn a beautiful golden color and transform when they send up their tall, elegant flowers and seeds. there are different kinds available – the coastal one has some low, spreading forms which don’t look much like bunchgrasses, but are very nice to walk on. all of them have the most handsome flowers/seeds and never fail to attract attention when they ripple/flow in the breeze. Festuca idahoensis – Idaho fescues – there are so many different kinds and they vary A LOT. I love them all – perfect sizes for any garden. my favorite new idaho fescue selection is ‘Clearwater Blue’ – a robust, large and very deep/dark blue color – gorgeous! I also like ‘muse meadow’ way better than the native/nonative hybrid ‘sikiyou blue’. it’s more compact w/ much finer, dark blue-green leaves which stay that way rather than turning white. Festuca X – this one was collected years ago by Dave Amme near Fort Bragg. It has never been ID’d but appears to be a hybrid of Festuca idahoensis, but looks more like F. rubra, but it is a native. it stays a beautiful green color all year here in oakland if it gets just a little bit of water once per month. if I had to choose a grass for a lawn-substitute, this would be the one I’d choose. it persists for a very long time and is very fine, soft and dense – perfect for bare feet! Carex praegracilis – Meadow Sedge – a large, but very fine, bright green sedge which I plan to use a lot more in the future. I prefer it to Carex pansa as a rhizomatous sedge. it gets larger, but is less problematic/particular about where it grows and it grows much more densely. another great one for bare feet. these are just a few of the ones we have been propagating at EBW nursery. there are lots more. what are your favorite grasses to use and how do you like to use them? Pete Veilleux East Bay Wilds Native Plant Nursery and Landscape Service 510-409-5858 Nursery Location: 28th Ave at Foothill Blvd in Oakland, CA [address is 2700 Foothill Blvd, but the entrance is on 28th Ave] Photos of our Work: http://www.flickr.com/photos/eastbaywilds/collections/72157600017422082/ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pete.veilleux “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; We will love only what we understand: And, we will understand only what we are taught.” Baba Dioum, Senegalese ecologist

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