Taxonomy and Botany of Zebra Grass
According to plant taxonomy, zebra grass is Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus.' Miscanthus, the genus name, comes from the Greek, mischos (meaning "stalk") and the Greek, anthos (meaning "flower"). As for the specific epithet, sinensis indicates the plant's origin: China. The cultivar name, 'Zebrinus' alludes to the stripes on the plant's leaves, which are reminiscent of those on a zebra and give this specimen its common name.
Zebra grass is one of the ornamental grasses. It belongs to the Poaceae family of plants, making it a true grass.
Characteristics of the Plant
Creamy golden stripes cut horizontally across the otherwise green blades of zebra grass, making it a variegated plant. But there is more to this zebra than its stripes. The plant displays an arching form and develops flower heads composed of tiny white blooms in late summer.
The flower heads become attractive seed heads (plumes) that lend significant visual interest to the landscape in fall and winter. In early fall, more and more of a golden coloration will start to creep into the leaves. By late fall, leaf color becomes more of a beige.
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 3-5 feet.
Planting Zones, Geographical Origin, Sun and Soil Requirements
Grow zebra grass in planting zones 5-9.
The parents of the various types of Miscanthus sinensis are indigenous to the Far East.
This plant is tolerant of a variety of soil conditions. Furnish young plants with sufficient water to get them established. But a mature specimen will serve as a drought-tolerant ornamental grass.
Provide full sun for optimal growth and fertilize with compost.
It prefers a soil pH that is roughly neutral.
Plant Care Information
Divide zebra grass every few years in spring to propagate the plant and/or revitalize it.
Some gardeners like to leave the stalks in place during winter, rather than cutting them: Cleanup can wait till late winter or early spring, because these plants offer value for winter scenes. Besides, the dead stalks will function as a bit of mulch to protect the root system from winter's chilling temperatures.
If you really must cut the stalks early, leave 5 or 6 inches sticking up. But if you go this route, remember to trim off that remaining 5 or 6 inches in late winter or early spring. The reason for this advice is that the clump will not exactly be looking 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 till late winter or early spring to hack down the stalks -- and to shear them right down to ground level at that point in time.
All in all, Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus' is not a plant that requires much fuss, making it a suitable choice for low-maintenance landscaping.
Uses in Landscaping, Plus a Warning
Make this plant a focal point by growing it in the middle of a planting 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 such companion plants would be:
Depending on where you live, zebra grass can be an invasive plant, like many other alien plants that spread by means of underground rhizomes. For an alternative that is native to North America, try the perennial known as "switchgrass." Panicum virgatum 'Apache Rose' is a type of switchgrass that is commercially available. Another common name for this plant is "panic" or "panicum" grass (derived from the genus name). The Apache Rose cultivar is part of the PRAIRIE WINDS® series (others are 'Desert Plains' and 'Cheyenne Sky'). Apache Rose is a little more cold-hardy than zebra grass (you can successfully grow it as far north as USDA zone 4), and it also stays more compact (4 feet tall, at most, with a spread closer to 2 feet than to 3) than zebra grass, making it a better selection for tight spots in the landscape.
Wildlife, Zebra Grass and Porcupine Grass
Happily, this beauty is one of the deer-resistant ornamental grasses, so you do not have to worry about deer pests coming in and eating it.
What is the difference between zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus') and porcupine grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Strictus'), another popular selection? The two look very much alike, because they both sport horizontal stripes. But 'Zebrinus' has more of an arching habit, whereas the porcupine is more upright. You can easily remember the difference by considering the cultivar name of the latter: 'Strictus' should make you think of "strict," that is, "upright," "upstanding."
Zebrinus' arching habit can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your preferences. 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, perhaps necessitating staking.
Outstanding Characteristic of the Plant
Zebra grass is a favorite among the ornamental grasses, and with good reason. The plant is similar to the closely-related Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus' in that it stands tall as a green sentinel in your landscape all summer, then puts out flowers, followed by a seed head that offers late-season visual interest.
But here is what places zebra grass on a level above Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus': It has stunning variegated leaves.