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Picture of zebra grass. This type of Miscanthus bears a horizontal stripe across its blade.

Picture of zebra grass.

David Beaulieu

Plant Taxonomy 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.

Plant Type:

Zebra grass is one of the ornamental grasses.

Characteristics of Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus':

Creamy golden stripes cut across the blades of zebra grass horizontally (for a closeup photo of the variegation pattern in the leaf, click "More Images" under the picture, above right, to access the mini-photo gallery). But there's more to this zebra than its stripes. The plant displays an arching form and develops flower heads composed of tiny white blooms in 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 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 for Zebra Grass:

Grow zebra grass in planting zones 5-9. The parents of the various types of Miscanthus sinensis are indigenous to the Far East.

Sun and Soil Requirements:

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.

Care:

Divide zebra grass every few years in spring to propagate the plant and/or revitalize it.

I like to leave the stalks in place during winter, rather than cutting them: cleanup can wait till late winter or early spring. Why waste their value for winter scenes, right? 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 (and I do not know why you would), 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. Why? Because the clump will not exactly be looking its best in early spring anyway, when it first starts to put out new growth. 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 (see image #3 in mini-photo gallery).

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. I recommend it for low-maintenance landscaping.

Uses in Landscaping:

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. And what cottage garden wouldn't be enhanced by one or more clumps of zebra grass up against a wall or fence?

Caveat:

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

Wildlife, Zebra Grass and Porcupine Grass:

Happily, this beauty is one of the deer-resistant ornamental grasses, so you don't have to worry about Bambi coming in and decimating it.

Speaking of animals, you may wonder about the difference between zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus') and porcupine grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Strictus'). 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," i.e., "upright," "upstanding."

Zebrinus' arching habit can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your predilections. If you're enamored with luxuriance, you'll see it as graceful. But if you like things neat and tidy, you'll perceive it as floppy, perhaps necessitating staking.

Outstanding Characteristic:

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's what places zebra grass on a level above Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus': it has stunning variegated leaves.
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