Review: Pennisetum ‘Foxtrot’

by Andrew Keys on April 6, 2010

My affair with Pennisetum alopecuroides cultivars ended almost before it began, and for that you can thank Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose,’ in my opinion a more exciting plant in so many ways, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t yet discerned whether ‘Foxtrot’ (or ‘Fox Trot’) is purely an alopecuroides cultivar or a cross with something else, but it’s certainly of the alopecuroides ilk.

I guess it depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a ‘Hameln,’ but LARGE, Foxtrot’s your man. It’s reputedly not invasive, and indeed I’ve never found a seedling, but is has some alopecuroides qualities I think I appreciate more as wee, cute little grass qualities versus mega monster grass qualities.

Exhibit A: plain green fountains of Pennisetum foliage. In the small grasses, they add something more fine-boned to the garden, something soft, something soothing. It’s finer when it’s younger, but in mature ‘Foxtrot’ we have a squat hulk of flat green foliage that sits coarsely in my garden until it blooms. So many big grasses with more exciting leaves are available now (like EVERY Panicum, and they’re natives too), or that have more exciting inflorescences to go with their snoozy leaves (Molinia ‘Skyracer’ comes to mind).

Exhibit B: the inflorescences. When they emerge from the center of the plant, it looks for all the world like a hairy green flying saucer, and they its antennae, all suspended in an odd group several inches above, and that’s kind of interesting. It’s just not that showy. The flowers themselves are pretty enough, but again, I’ve been underwhelmed. If you look at them in a certain light, they’re *almost* dusky pink for like a day; mostly they’re a flat brown. I can’t help but think we could do better, people. And I actually miss the golden brown fuzzies of ubiquitous ‘Hameln.’

To be honest, I have ‘Foxtrot’ in entirely the wrong spot, so I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt. It sits in my front bed with other, more exciting plants, against the backdrop of my blue house, and I think it clashes in a subtle way with just about everything in my palette there. The scale of my front garden is incorrect for this plat. It needs to be massed and backlit, with other large or massed plants it can make look better — it’s great as a supporting player, it’s just too large to be a supporting player here. I’m thinking masses of deep, warm color and big, coarse leaves: Rudbeckia, Gaillardia, Joe Pye, Silphium, Yucca, plume poppy, small deciduous trees. And so, all the ‘Foxtrot’ in this bed is shaping up and shipping out this year to greener contextual pastures. That and all grass moving and dividing happens soon, which is why I post this now.

Lowdown:

  • COLOR: Green. Barely pink brown. See directly above for my ideas on its best combos.
  • LIGHT: Definitely sun. It putters along in part shade, but hey, if you’re up for a smaller plant, it could be useful there.
  • WATER: Established Pennisetums are drought tolerant plants.
  • LOW MAINTENANCE: Well, it is that. Post-frost, cut down dead growth before new emerges in spring. That’s it!
  • FAMILY TREE: Pennisetum is a member of the grass family, Poaceae, which we’ve discussed in this space before, and which stocks the pantry that stocks the pantry: barley, oats, rye, wheat, sugarcane, and a particularly fancy one we call corn (Zea mays) are all grasses, as well as the turf you may grown as your lawn.

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