How to Grow and Care for Zebra Grass

Zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis) blade image showing variegation.
David Beaulieu

Zebra grass is a favorite among the ornamental grasses and with good reason. It stands tall (with an arching form) as a green sentinel in your landscape all summer, then it puts out tiny white blooms, followed by a seed head plumes that offer late-season visual interest. Zebra grass also has stunning variegated leaves with creamy golden stripes that cut horizontally across the otherwise green blades of grass. In early fall, more and more of a golden coloration creeps into the leaves. By late fall, the leaf color becomes more of a beige.

Zebra grass belongs to the Poaceae family of plants, making it a true grass. Its botanical name comes from the Greek mischos (meaning "stalk") and the Greek anthos (meaning "flower"). Sinensis indicates the plant originated in China. The cultivar name "Zebrinus" alludes to the stripes on the plant's leaves, which are reminiscent of a zebra's stripes.

  • Botanical nameMiscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus'
  • Common name: Zebra grass
  • Plant type: Perennial
  • Mature size: Can get up to 7 feet tall
  • Sun exposure: Full sun
  • Soil type: Chalk, clay, loam, sand
  • Soil pH: Neutral
  • Bloom time: Late summer
  • Flower color: Silvery white
  • Hardiness zones: 5 to 9
  • Native area: Japan

How to Grow Zebra Grass

Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus' is a good option for low-maintenance landscaping and is tolerant of a variety of soil conditions. This is a large ornamental grass, attaining a mature height of up to 7 feet (measuring to the top of the plume; foliage will reach about 5 feet tall) with a spread of 3 to 5 feet.

Light

Provide full sun for optimal growth. If the plant is in too much shade, the leaf blades can get floppy, but you can provide a stake or even a tomato cage to help prop them upright.

Soil

Zebra grass prefers a soil pH that is roughly neutral. This grass produces best in moist soils or even boggy riparian edges.

Water

Young zebra grass needs regular watering to get established, but a mature specimen will serve as a drought-tolerant ornamental grass.

Temperature and Humidity

Most warm season ornamental grasses thrive with warmer soil temperatures at about 70 to 90 F and air temperatures even a little hotter. In the cooler zones, give this plant a western exposure in a sheltered area or where cold does not pocket.

Fertilizer

Fertilize with compost or good organic plant food. Cut back the flower heads in either fall or spring. If you like the look of the dry feathery flowers, leave them until spring. If not, cut them back to within a few inches of the crown of the plant in fall. 

Propagation

To propagate and/or revitalize the plant, you can divide it in spring every few years right before or right after the grass blooms or divide the grass clumps when the plant breaks dormancy. Rinse the tangled mass of roots off with water to remove the soil. This allows you to see damaged roots or those that may be diseased. Cut the bad roots off before you replant the ornamental grass sections. 

Pruning

Some gardeners like to leave the stalks in place during winter, rather than cutting them. In this case, cleanup can wait till late winter or early spring because these plants offer value for winter scenes. The dead stalks also act as a bit of mulch to protect the root system from winter's chilling temperatures.

If you prefer to cut the stalks early, leave 5 or 6 inches sticking up, then trim off that remaining 5 or 6 inches in late winter or early spring. The clump will not look its best in early spring anyway when it first starts to put out new growth, and if you allow the green shoots to come out of that 5 or 6 inches of stubble, the overall appearance will be even less inspiring. A much simpler approach is to wait until late winter or early spring and then shear the stalks right down to ground level.

Landscaping

You can make zebra grass a focal point by growing it in the middle of shorter plants. It makes a sufficiently bold statement to serve as a specimen plant. Alternatively, exploit its screening ability by planting it in hedges. The fine texture of its blades suggests using it in combination with coarser plants to create a contrast. A cottage garden will be enhanced by one or more clumps of zebra grass up against a wall or fence.

Since zebra grass is at its best in late summer and in fall, some gardeners like to choose companion plants for it that also look their best during the August-October period, so as to create a display area with optimal visual interest for that time of year. Examples of companion plants include:

  • Chrysanthemum flowers
  • Hardy hibiscus
  • New England aster

Zebra grass is one of the deer-resistant ornamental grasses, so you do not have to worry about deer pests coming in and eating it.

Mistaken Identity

Zebra grass is similar to porcupine grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Strictus'), another popular tall ornamental grass. The two look very much alike because they both sport horizontal stripes. But zebra grass has more of an arching habit, whereas the porcupine is more upright. You can easily remember the difference by considering the "strictus" cultivar name as "standing strictly at attention."

The arching habit of zebra grass can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your preference. If you are enamored with luxuriance, you will see it as graceful. But if you like things neat and tidy, you will perceive it as floppy and needing staking.

Depending on where you live, zebra grass can be an invasive plant, like many other alien plants that spread by means of underground rhizomes.