Growing 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 as a green sentinel in your landscape all summer, then it puts out flowers, followed by a seed head that offers late-season visual interest. Zebra grass also has stunning variegated leaves. It belongs to the Poaceae family of plants, making it a true grass, and it grows in USDA plant hardiness zones 5 through 9.

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 originated in 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. The parents of the various types of Miscanthus sinensis are indigenous to the Far East.

Characteristics of Zebra Grass

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 creeps into the leaves. By late fall, the 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 to 5 feet.

Growing Zebra Grass

Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus' is a good option for low-maintenance landscaping and is tolerant of a variety of soil conditions. Young plants need regular watering 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. Zebra grass prefers a soil pH that is roughly neutral. To propagate and/or revitalize the plant, you can divide it in spring every few years.

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.

Uses of Zebra Grass in Landscaping

You can make zebra grass 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 include:

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 '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," as in "upright" or "upstanding."

Zebrinus' arching habit 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, perhaps necessitating 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. For an alternative that is native to North America, try the perennial known as "switchgrass," such as Panicum virgatum 'Apache Rose.' Another common name for this plant is "panic" or "panicum" grass. Apache Rose is a little more cold-hardy than zebra grass (suitable for zone 4) and stays more compact (4 feet tall and a little more than 2 feet wide), making it a better selection for tight spots in the landscape.