Panicum is a genus of ornamental grasses that thrive in temperate zones throughout the world. Also known as switchgrass or witchgrass, these ornamentals often grow in large clumps that spread to cover a large area. Many varieties are highly desired along coastal regions, as they can tolerate a high level of salt in the air and water.
Within the genus, there are a wide range of varieties. Typically, members of the Panicum genus consist of clumps containing tall grasses, which can usually reach heights of up to 4 feet (about 1.2 m), depending on the species. The width of the blades of grass also vary, and the individual grasses can be flat and spear-shaped or have a rolled appearance to the edges. Many varieties can withstand cold temperatures down to -40°F (about -37°C). When trimmed back to nearly ground level, most species will be able to survive cold winters to return again in the spring.
Tips of the grasses often sport colorful flowers in the form of anthers that sprout from the tops and produce seeds. In the autumn months, many varieties of Panicum change color. Most are shades of reddish green in the summer months, with some cultivars, such as the Rotstrahlbusch, remaining distinctly reddish all summer long. Cultivars, such as the Heavy Metal, turn yellow and red in the fall, while the Haense Herms changes to pink and red. Others, like the Prairie Sky, are a gray-green year-round.
Clumps of Panicum can spread, but some types are less likely to take over an area. This quality makes them popular plants for covering a large amount of space, and their clumping growth pattern makes them ideal for forming natural fences and borders. Aside from being an ornamental grass, members of this genus also have a number of practical applications. Panicum can provide food for grazing animals such as sheep and cows, but can be grazed back quickly. As the genus is tolerant of sandy soils and salt content, it can be used along coastlines in order to help prevent erosion and stabilize beaches.
Panicum is unique in the care that can be given in order to allow the grasses to reach full potential. Every few years, it is recommended that grasses be burned back in a controlled fire. When this is done before the main growing season, grasses will grow back thicker and stronger than before. Many varieties produce rhizomes underground, and these structures allow them to not only survive fires, but to thrive in the aftermath.