Monocot Madness: Grasses to Know and Love

Grasses - Magnolia Gift and Garden

Whether spilling from an urn or bordering a stone walk, fringing a shaded pond or covering a sunny hillside, there are few plants in the garden that impart the sense of grace or the fluid motion of ornamental grasses. Their fine, linear structure makes an effective foil to coarser-leaved shrubs or perennials, and adds three-season visual interest. Striking in a mass planting, eye-catching as a specimen, these cultivated monocots are surprisingly low maintenance. Offering growth habits and colors aplenty, handling exposures from full sun to full shade, and tolerating a range of irrigation regimes, there is undoubtedly a long-leafed beauty prepared to infuse your yard with dynamic texture.

Grasses - Magnolia Gift and Garden

Black Mondo Grass - Magnolia Gift and Garden
A Magnolia favorite, Black Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) is one of the unsung wonders of the Northern California garden. The sun-shunning foliage lives up to its name, maturing to a deep black, highlighted by lime-colored new growth. This clumping evergreen will reach some 12” high and wide, and is reliably cold-hardy. Diminutive pale pink flowers, followed by striking black berries, emerge in early summer. Provide regular water during the warm seasons.

chondropetalum tectorum

The Cape Rush (Chondropetalum tectorum) forms a dense clump of reed-like stems about 4-5’ high and wide. The strongly vertical growth bears branched leaflets at the joints, lending a prehistoric air to this shade-dweller. Especially striking in aquatic settings, this false rush nonetheless requires very little water once it is established.

Fubuki Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra FUBUKI ‘Briform’) is a descriptive moniker—the first word translates “snow storm,” which is easily envisioned when admiring the white-striped foliage of this cascading shade perennial. Come fall, the creamy bands color up to a soft pink. More compact than the species, Fubuki will spread to roughly 16”, and not quite as tall. Ensure that this one has moist, well-drained soil for superb performance.

Heat- and drought-tolerant, Orange Sedge (Carex testacea ‘Orange Sedge’) is one of the best choices for a tough and nearly maintenance-free mass planting. New growth emerges a golden-green, turning orange in Autumn, and a toffee color over the winter. Mow this one before spring to rejuvenate the growth, or just let the new shoots infiltrate the bronzy clump, which will reach roughly 2’. In time, it creates soft hassocks of threadlike leaves that curl down to the ground.

Red Fountain Grass
Red Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) remains one of the loveliest perennial grasses, with tan and purple plumes swaying above rich red foliage in a 5’ clump. Once established, it demands little water. Though this graceful specimen does occasionally succumb to winter-cold in the North Valley, it is worth the risk. A green-leaved cultivar—‘Ruppelii’—is also available, displaying straw-colored seed plumes brushed with a deep rose.


Valued for its round, pincushion form, Blue Oat Grass (Helictotrihon sempervirens) is semi-evergreen in our region. The steel-blue clump will reach some 2-3’ at maturity, and prominently displays golden plumes over the erect foliage in spring. Moderate water over summer will keep this one looking great. It should not be overlooked as a container subject; the bold texture and silvery tones make an architectural statement in any setting.

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Flowering Maple Shines

Flowering Maple - Magnolia Gift and Garden

Shade has met its match. The brilliant array of bloom colors, fantastic foliage and superb performance that have earned the Flowering Maple (Abutilon hybrids) a prominent position in our inventory brighten dim corners, treed borders and containers year-around. Evergreen and cold-hardy in Chico, this plant will take morning sun, filtered light or shade in stride, producing a plethora of pendent bell-shaped flowers from spring through fall. Hummingbirds find the vibrant cups irresistible, and humans are similarly drawn to their Crayola-rivaling spectrum of hues—white, yellow, gold and palest pink through oranges and deep reds. The leaves deserve the plant’s common moniker, as most display five toothed lobes, distinctly resembling the Acer genus. Given good drainage and regular water, Abutilon becomes a small to large shrub at maturity, depending on the cultivar. For best structure, staking is required in taller specimens, and periodically pinching the growth tips will encourage a denser, bushier habit in plants of any size. Though myriad cultivars are available, displaying astounding variety in bloom shape and color, leaf texture and pattern, here are a handful of our favorites.

‘Apricot’—Aptly named, the peachy petals of this selection form an open bell shape, highlighted by muted red sepals. One of Chris’ picks, it is a prolific bloomer, and will reach some 6’ high at maturity.

‘Cristina’—My newest fetish, this lovely strain sports fiery tangerine blooms with slightly fluted petals. One of the more compact varieties, expect a bushy plant in the 3-4’ range.

‘Mobile Pink’—Courtney, our resident Abutilon expert, adores this one. Out of her extensive collection, she claims this is the most robust and floriferous. Growing roughly 3′ high and wide, it displays pale pink flowers with an umbrella-like form and lustrous petals.

‘Nabob’—One of the taller cultivars, at around 10’ unpruned, this is undeniably among the most striking bloomers of the bunch. It produces large, strongly cupped flowers in some shade between blood red and wine, primarily in spring and fall.

‘Tiger Eye’—Less prolific than some of the varieties named above, but definitely worth the wait; golden bells with red-orange veins and protruding red stamens add an exotic flair to the garden. The leaves are similarly tropical in appearance; deeply lobed, glossy and dark green. A larger plant, it may reach 10’ in time.

‘Victory’—Irresistibly cheery, the dainty golden flowers have fluted petals that seem to swirl out of a burnished orange calyx. The plant is densely clothed in small, felted leaves, belying a rather vigorous growth habit that can result in 10-12’ stature when mature.

Whether you seek a punch of color or cool whites and creamy yellows, velvety green foliage or dappled gold, look no further. The Flowering Maple is the go-to perennial for shade performance. The nursery is flush with these vibrant beauties right now, but they won’t last long.

Silver Takes Center Stage

The end of another warm week in Northern California—would it be overly optimistic to call it the last fit of summer? Each morning, dawn breaks just a bit later, as if the sun doesn’t begrudge me the luxury of a few more moments of sleep. And more often than not, dusk catches me out on my evening walk now. The leaves of the Chinese Pistache trees on campus are daily more suffused with amber and red, smoldering into the interior until the foliage will soon be alight with radiant hues of fall. My hands are itching to be in cool, moist soil again, planting spinach, lettuce, kale and arugula. The end of the first week of September—what a sense of anticipation is wrapped up in those words, both beckoning change and foreboding leaf rakes and pruning shears, woolen scarves and sweaters, leather boots, umbrellas. But in the interval between “leaf rakes” and “pruning shears” there is more than just an article; there is a prime gardening season. With that in mind, Horticultural Manager Jim Belles selected two exceptional performers for our Plants of the Week.

Perovskia ruscifolia ‘Filigran’ is an improved cultivar of a timeless favorite in our region—Russian Sage. Finely-cut, ferny foliage in shades of silvery green sets off the airy spikes of lavender-blue flowers to advantage. Due to its clumping habit and graceful spires that branch from the ground, this drought-tolerant perennial makes a lovely informal border to a lawn or walk. Jim favors ‘Filigran’ because it is more compact than the species—measuring about 3 feet high and wide at maturity—thrives in full sun, poor soil and harsh conditions. Perovskia shines in a perennial bed or landscape, drawing butterflies and diverse species of pollinator insects to the garden. Prolific blooms from mid-summer through fall make this one an essential, especially in cottage gardens, meadows, Mediterranean and Southwestern-themed yards.

Another silvery standout is Juniperus virginiana ‘Skyrocket’—the aptly dubbed Skyrocket Juniper. Fabulous threadlike texture on vertical shoots cloak its conical form, spreading only 2-3 feet wide, and growing rapidly to around 12 feet. In time, it may peak at 15-20 feet high, forming a superb maintenance-free hedgerow or regal columnar accent. Clean, tight habit is inherent to this evergreen, which requires no pruning, and needs very little water once established. It thrives in full sun, handles wind, and is not fussy about soil; as Jim pointed out, it is one of the best-suited conifers to our interior Northern California climate. He suggests pairing it with other drought-tolerant selections like New Zealand Flax, Grevillea, Rock Rose, Russian Sage (such as the one above) and Salvias for year-around texture, color, and low-maintenance beauty.

So whether the holiday weekend finds you in your garden, ours, or far away, all of us at Magnolia wish you a safe and relaxing Labor Day!

Melynn’s Favorite Plants

Melynn’s Top 5 Must Have Plants


Abelia ‘Kaleidoscope’
· This small shrub has all season color. In warm weather leaves have a soft chartreuse variegated color. In the cooler weather leaves take on a pinkish maroon color.
· Low maintenance plant. Growth habit is neat and compact. Plant reaches 2′-3′ tall and wide.
·Great evergreen shrub for small areas.


Loropetalum ‘Burgundy’
· Holds beautiful burgundy leaf color all year.
· Withstands full sun to almost all day shade
· Unique neon pink fringe flowers
· Low maintenance and little pruning required
· Although evergreen this shrub gets great fall color


· Endless array of color combinations

· Brightens up dark shady areas

· Fast growing and has many different height selections

· Can be a stunning houseplant

· Last a very long time in flower arrangements

Acacia baileyana
· Tough drought tolerant evergreen tree

· Beautiful soft texture leaves with a grayish-blue color

· Spring flowers are in bright yellow globular clusters

· Good choice for small yards reaching only 20′-30′ tall

Gingko biloba
· Spectacular glowing yellow autumn color

· Fan-shaped leaves are very unique

· Disease resistant and very few pests

· The oldest tree in the world. Over 2oo million years ago these trees kept the dinosaurs company.


Chris’ Favorite Plants

Chris’ Top 5 Must Have Plants

Arbutus ‘Marina’

· All season interest

· Attracts hummingbirds

· Superb evergreen mid-sized garden tree

· Drought tolerant

·Well suited for North Valley conditions


Kumquat ‘Nagami’

· Very hardy (So hardy because unlike most other citrus does not grow in winter months)

· Nice and neat uniform growth habit

· His favorite fruit, it tastes great and is nutritious (can be an acquired taste)


Muhlenbergia dumosa – Bamboo Muhly

· Excellent silhouette

· Reflects the sun well illuminating in sunlight

· Drought tolerant

· Has a reputation for reseeding (however he has never had any problem in his yard)

· No need to cut back when dormant stays attractive in winter too


Polygonatum o. ‘Variegatum’ -Solomon’s Seal

· Tough shade perennial (withstands abuse from his rambunctious dogs)

· This variety is particularly vigorous

· Great spring emergence from the soil (looks really neat)

· Variegated leaves stand out in dark shade

· Great companion plants are Variegated Aspidistra and Rhodea


Butia capitata- Pindo Palm

· Distinctive nicely silhouetted fronds

· Very cold hardy palm that looks great even in winter

· Nice fine textured gray foliage


Courtney’s Favorite Plants

Courtney’s Top 5 Plants


Agave vilmoriniana- Octopus Agave
· Drought tolerant

· Beautiful curved and twisted bluish-gray leaves

· Impressive silhouette

· Hardy (Many sources claim it should not survive in the North Valley yet it has happily for several years in Courtney’s yard)

· Improves with age

· Evergreen plant that makes a statement


Sedum ‘Lemon Belle’

· Drought tolerant

· Easy care low maintenance

· Striking chartreuse foliage contrasts beautifully with other plants

· Usually evergreen in North Valley

· Looks great in containers spilling  over edges


Grevillea ‘Long John’

· Drought tolerant

· Hardy (Many sources claim it should not survive in our zone yet it has happily for several years in Courtney’s yard)

· Flowers are very unique and beautiful

· Foliage is long and feathery

· Yet another evergreen plant that makes a statement



Hakonechloa macra- Japanese Forest Grass
· Graceful grass that prefers some shade
· Many color selections most chartreuse and golden which stand out in shady gardens

· Contrasts well with burgundy and green plants

· Tolerates moist soil

· Beautiful new growth emergance from soil spring



Cornus florida- Flowering Dogwood

· Beautiful spring flowers announce the joyous arrival of spring

· Winter berries attract birds

· Young trees needs a bit of extra care in North Valley but  worth the effort

· Stunning autumn color

· Branching is airy forming a wonderful canopy