Review: Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’

by Andrew Keys on February 1, 2010

Pronunciation // I’d planted and marveled at Panicums before, and when I heard the fuss over ‘Shenandoah’ in early 2009, I couldn’t help but get caught up in it. A red Panicum! What more could we ask? It was the answer to everyone’s prayers and the cure for cancer, and it smelled like bacon frying.

I jump too quickly to sarcasm… ‘Shenandoah’ is, in fact, a lovely grass, and I have every reason to suspect, in fact, that under the right circumstances it IS The Red Grass Magic Bullet, the native answer to aggressive Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron.’ I just haven’t figured out what those circumstances are, or whether my ‘Shenandoahs’ are duds. (See photos below to compare.)

Make no mistake, my Panicum ‘Shenandoah’ is beautiful. Gallon pots grew quickly and produced substantial clumps the first season, and they bloomed their heads off — a plus I hadn’t expected. The only problem is the foliage: green, green, green, no red to be seen. Could it be exposure, drainage, soil pH? (Full sun, well-drained, a bit acidic, respectively.) I’m not sure, but here’s my best guess: according to a veteran gardener friend who planted ‘Shenandoah’ en masse a few years ago, the red plants breed but produce plain green offspring. I think that’s what the nursery where I got mine was selling, albeit unwittingly.

We all know 2009 was a weird year here in New England. It rained half the summer, causing 100-year outbreaks of pests and fungi and bumper crops of acorns. It was not the year for warm-season grasses. As such, I’m going to see what Panicum ‘Shenandoah’ does next year, but just in case, I’m going to do that in a spot where I don’t need an impactful red.

Lowdown:

  • COLOR, COLOR, COLOR: Plant it yourself and be the judge! ‘Shenandoah’ is supposed to have red streaks much of the season, more in fall. Clearly this wasn’t my experience. If I were you, given the risk of inferior cultivars, I’d only buy it if I could see red coloring at the time of purchase. If you think I’m doing something wrong and there’s still hope for mine, I’d love to hear so I can fix it. The flowerheads when it blooms, regardless, are frothily delicious.
  • LIGHT: Panicums are adaptable, but these grasses like warmth, and thus are generally more dense, upright and attractive the more sun you give them.
  • WATER: Established Panicums are drought-tolerant plants.
  • NATIVE: Panicums, including ‘Shenandoah’s’ parents, are U.S. natives.
  • LOW-MAINTENANCE: Post-frost, cut down dead growth before new emerges in spring. That’s it!
  • FAMILY TREE: Panicum is a member of the grass family, Poaceae, which includes the turf you may grow as your lawn as well as things to eat, like barley, oats, rye, wheat, sugarcane, and one particularly fancy grass we like to call corn (Zea mays).

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