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  • Robert Bruce Adams

Seedheads and Sunlight

ORNAMENTAL GRASSES ARE A FAVORITE OF MINE. I became fond of them in the 1990s as their popularity soared in the U.S. and I set out to grow them to learn about them first hand.

I raised a nursery of these gems on my farm in Leelanau County. There were seventy different types in my trials that I duplicated many times. I enjoyed giving them as gifts to friends to plant. Many of the grasses I still see today in landscapes as I drive through the county. It brings a big smile to my face.

Grasses had been a Victorian landscape novelty coming first to British and European gardens in the late 1800s and then crossing the big pond to become popular in the United States. Many selections came from far-away lands as botanists traveled and collected samples from around the world. Like all fashion where popularity can ebb and flow, they soon lost their way. A resurgence of interests began in the 1980s when German plantsmen helped jump start their revival. They featured and recommended ornamental grasses in mixed plantings with the likes of Sedums and Black-eyed Susan’s. Experts from popular garden publications rejoiced that grasses had returned with so many new selections.

I learned of many possible uses for grasses as my knowledge expanded. Landscape applications that I especially enjoy are those in mass plantings where single varieties are presented in long sweeps utilizing hundreds of individual plants, or as seeded landscapes. They are best placed along roadsides and medians, or around and through golf courses. These are clearly my ornamental favorites. Such a sight to behold, especially here in the north where in late summer grasses display their seed heads and begin changing colors taking on crimson reds, oranges, vibrant yellows and tans. Nature’s constants of wind and light further enhance their splendor as they move back and forth like a vast rolling ocean.

What I have come to truly appreciate is the annual display of seed heads on most ornamental grasses. These “Inflorescence” form on specialized stems as the grasses prepare in late summer to propagate. After fertilization, they mature and form ripened seed clusters. Wind, birds, and mammals come into the sequence to help disperse their fertilized seeds. All part of nature's plan. The great visual presentation that we enjoy is tied to this annual cycle centered around the seed head formation. This structure’s ability to capture sunlight, especially backlit sunshine in either the morning or in late afternoon is magical. The seed heads seem literally to ingest the light, creating a brilliant show that is unmatched in landscapes anywhere.

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