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Purple Fountain Grass

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Purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum) 'Rubrum', September David Burton/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Plant Taxonomy of Purple Fountain Grass:

Plant taxonomy classifies purple fountain grass as Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum.' Because 'Rubrum' means "red" in Latin, some people use "red fountain grass" as the common name. 'Rubrum' is the cultivar name.

Plant Type:

This clump-forming ornamental variety is a tropical plant. Consequently, those who live in cold climates usually treat it as an annual.

Characteristics of Purple Fountain Grass:

Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum' reaches a height of 3-5 feet with a spread of 2-4 feet. The plant typically blooms in July. Its purplish flower spikes are succeeded by burgundy or purplish-tinged seed heads, which are soft to the touch and cry out to be swayed by an autumn breeze. The spiky leaves are burgundy-colored.

Deer pests usually leave it alone, qualifying this plants as a deer-resistant ornamental grass. Although the species from which this cultivar was developed is considered an invasive plant in parts of the U.S., the cultivar is not considered invasive.

Planting Zones for Purple Fountain Grass:

Indigenous to Africa and southern Asia, purple fountain grass is best grown in zones 9-10. Those in colder zones will have to make due with enjoying its vivid color and striking, vase-shaped form in summer and fall.

Sun and Soil Requirements:

Grow Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum' in full sun. Like so many plants, this ornamental grass craves a well-drained soil. If you are cursed with a soil that is somewhat waterlogged, try a sedge grass instead. In fact, Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum' is considered a drought-tolerant ornamental grass.

Uses for Purple Fountain Grass in Landscaping:

Its beauty makes it popular as a focal point in a mixed planting, often in container gardens. But people will also mass several of the plants together (in a border planting, for example). Conversely, you can let them stand alone as specimen plants. Some like to use them to jazz up a foundation bed for the summer. Grouped with plants of a coarser texture, they can create a striking contrast.

Because its autumn seed heads are so attractive, the plant is, like maiden grass, very useful in fall flower gardens. The feathery seed heads (or "plumes") can later be cut for dried flower arrangements.

Outstanding Characteristics:

Some plants are primarily foliage plants, grown for their luscious leaves. Other plants earn their keep based on their floral color. Still others offer us attractive berries, seed heads, etc.

But sometimes, we get the whole package. Such is the case with purple fountain grass, so called because arching spikes of purplish flowers gracefully spray out of its mass of long, slender, burgundy-colored leaves. Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum' is well worth growing, even if you can enjoy it for only two seasons out of the year.

Companion Plants for Purple Fountain Grass:

Many types of plants will suggest themselves as companions to grow alongside Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum,' depending on your particular tastes. The only limiting factor is that you must choose other full-sun plants. Generally speaking, your main focus in making your selection will involve one or more of the following:

  1. Color theory
  2. Texture
  3. Height and growth habit

In terms of a color scheme, some will wish to "paint" with colors from the same side of the color wheel, using purple flowers or blue flowers. But purple fountain grass also looks wonderful with contrasting yellow flowers.

You can achieve a striking composition by striving for a contrast in texture, growth habit and plant height. The leaves of cannas, for example, will contrast nicely with those of purple fountain grass. If you're growing your purple fountain grass in a pot, move the container in front of oakleaf hydrangea in the fall: The purplish fall foliage and contrasting texture of the latter will provide an effective backdrop. And for the foreground, install a short plant with a growth habit that contrasts with the upright purple fountain grass: For example, annual lobelia.

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