Zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus') 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 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.
Zebra grass has a moderate to fast growth rate and can be planted in spring or fall. However, in regions with early or severe winters, spring planting is recommended to give the grass sufficient time to develop in its first season. Depending on where you live, zebra grass can be an invasive plant, like many other alien plants that spread by means of underground rhizomes.
|Common Name||Zebra grass, maiden grass, Chinese silvergrass|
|Botanical Name||Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus'|
|Plant Type||Ornamental grass|
|Mature Size||7 ft. tall, 3-5 ft. wide|
|Soil Type||Chalk, clay, loam, sand|
|Bloom Time||Late summer|
|Flower Color||Silvery white|
|Hardiness Zones||5-9 (USDA)|
Zebra Grass Care
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. It can spread easily by rhizomes and can fill in areas quickly, so space them about 3 to 4 feet apart when planting. They are very easy to care for, as zebra plants are not only drought-resistant plants requiring very little water but are also resistant to most pests and diseases.
Zebra grass spreads quickly and is considered an invasive species in parts of the United States. This grass has been reported as invasive in U.S. National Parks in North Carolina, Tennessee, Washington D.C., and Virginia.
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.
Zebra grass prefers a soil pH that is roughly neutral. This grass produces best in moist soils or even boggy riparian edges.
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 degrees Fahrenheit 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.
Fertilize with compost or good organic plant food in spring.
Types of Chinese Silvergrass
There a various types of Chinese silvergrass, with zebra grass being just one of them. Varieties include:
- Micanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus': grows up 5 to 6 feet tall showcasing purple flower plumes during the summer that change to silver in the cooler months.
- Micanthus sinensis 'Flamingo': grows up 5 to 6 feet tall with rose-pink flower plumes throughout the summer, changing to a silvery white in the winter months.
- Micanthus sinensis 'Strictus': Also known as porcupine grass, this ornamental grass grows 6 to 8 feet tall and offers variegated foliage with pinkish-colored plumes.
- Micanthus sinensis 'Silberfeder': grows up to 8 feet tall with variegated foliage and pinkish-silver plumes appearing in the late summer which turn white in the cooler months.
Some gardeners like to leave the stalks in place during winter rather than cutting them. In this case, pruning 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.
Propagating Zebra Grass
To propagate or revitalize the plant, you can divide it in the spring every few years right before or right after the grass blooms, or divide the grass clumps when the plant breaks dormancy. Keep in mind that it's best to prune the zebra grass before propagating. Here's how:
- Select a healthy plant and dig it up with a pointed shovel.
- Turn the plant on its side so you can see the roots.
- Rinse the tangled mass of roots with water to remove the soil. This allows you to see any damaged roots or those that may be diseased.
- Split the plant (in half or even thirds, depending on the size of the clump) by cutting through it with the pointed tip of the shovel.
- Cut off any bad roots with gardening shears.
- Replant the ornamental grass sections in the desired appropriate place and water.
Potting and Repotting Zebra Grass
Zebra grass can be grown in a container making for a nice display on any patio. It will need a bit more watering since it is contained in a pot and should be fertilized during the spring. Plant it in a large container with drainage holes, using potting soil and then water. Just realize that it will fill up the container within one season and will need to be divided.
Landscaping Uses for Zebra Grass
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.
Zebra Grass vs. Porcupine Grass
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 unkempt, perhaps in need of a good staking.
Let those brownish-colored stalks of your ornamental grass stay until early spring and then prune them down. Not only do they provide somewhat of a display in the garden, but the stalks help to protect the root ball from the cold.
Zebra grass, like most ornamental grasses, need good air circulation and full sun to help keep it from getting fungus, including powdery mildew or leaf blight. With proper care and maintenance, any fungal diseases can be prevented. This makes zebra grass a popular landscaping plant for any flower bed.
Is there an alternative non-invasive plant in place of zebra grass?
There are a number of non-invasive native plants in the US that can be planted instead of using zebra grass. These include Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii ).
Does zebra grass help prevent erosion?
Zebra grass, along with other ornamental grasses, can help prevent erosion due to their clumping and deep root systems which hold the soil in place.
Is zebra grass flammable?
Ornamental grasses tend to be more flammable than other plants due to the fact that they have dry and dead stalks in the cooler months. If you're in a high-risk fire area, take this into consideration before planting this type of plant.
Chinese silvergrass. Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States.
Tips on Creating a Fire-Resistant Landscape. Pacific Horticulture.