If there were a plant Olympics, ‘Northwind’ switchgrass would be Michael Phelps.
Gold medals would be piled in heaps near this tall, tough, wide-leafed beauty from the prairies for its achievements in adaptability, versatility, ingenuity and sheer pluck. Drought tolerance is a trait to be admired—but what about a plant that can thrive in drought and in bogs? And in sand, clay and just about every other soil you can name, and look good doing it, too?
This cultivar of a classic, tall prairie grass even has the dense, tapered vase shape of our champion swimmer—though it is, of course, much more green. For its resistance to disease and pests and its ability to live in varied climates, among other traits, ‘Northwind’ was chosen as the Perennial Plant of the Year for 2014 by the Perennial Plant Association. In other words, it scored a perfect 10.
Common name: ‘Northwind’ switchgrass
Botanical name: Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’
Plant type: Herbaceous perennial
Zones: 4 to 9, though some sources include Zones 2 to 11
Height: 4 to 6 feet
• Sun: Full sun; tolerates light shade; flops in heavy shade
• Soil: Prefers sandy loam, but grows in nearly any soil, including sand, clay, marshy areas and salty coastal soils
• Moisture: Dry to wet
• Mulch: None needed
• Pruning: Cut last year’s foliage down to encourage early growth.
• Fertilizer: None needed; will flop if over-fertilized
Pests and diseases
• Possible problems with spider mites, rust, leaf spot or aphids
• Deer resistant
• Use switchgrass as a vertical accent in a perennial garden or as a privacy screen; leave it standing for winter interest; use dried blades and seed heads in bouquets or wreaths.
• Try it in a rain garden or as a border around a pond.
• Leaves turn gold in the fall; seed panicles rise near the center of the clump and tend to stay upright rather than flop.
All in the family
• Switchgrass is a member of Poaceae, the grass family. Other members include wheat, rice, barley, bamboo and millet.
• There are many switchgrass cultivars available, including ‘Heavy Metal’, ‘Prairie Sky’ and ‘Dallas Blues’.
• ‘Northwind’ was bred by Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennial Farm in Wisconsin. One nursery claimed that it was the only ornamental grass in their trial garden to survive a hurricane and a drought.
Where to buy
• Oikos Tree Crops, oikostreecrops.com
• Plant Delights Nursery, plantdelights.com
• Wayside Gardens, waysidegardens.com