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What is Panicum?

By Debra Durkee
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments
By wavy58 — On Apr 13, 2012

I live in Mississippi, and Fall Panicum runs rampant here. It is considered a weed, and it is hard to yank up from the roots.

The blades are easy enough to tear, but the stalks with numerous seed heads on them are too tough to be pulled off with my bare hands. When I have tried, part of it slips out of the sheath and comes off in my hands, but the base remains. I usually have to use garden shears to trim them down.

About the only way to really get rid of Fall Panicum in my garden is to dig it up from the roots with a shovel. This is hard work in the hot sun, so sometimes, I just let it stay there and keep it trimmed with the shears. If it tries to take over the space used by my other plants, though, I will get rid of it.

By kylee07drg — On Apr 12, 2012

@orangey03 – My sister lives in Florida, and she grows Panicum Virgatum Northwind. It gets as tall as her husband's head, and he is six feet tall.

It does well in sand, and it stays green year round. When the breeze blows, it makes a sound that reminds me of a skirt swishing around as a lady walks.

It grows really fast, so it will probably reach its full height in one season. If you plant several clumps of it, then birds will flock to it in the winter to stay warm.

By orangey03 — On Apr 11, 2012

I live on the Gulf coast, and I've been looking for a type of ornamental grass to use as a border on my property. My yard is mostly made of sand, and I really need a little vegetation to keep things interesting.

I love the tall types of grass that make a swishing sound in the ocean breeze, but I don't know what they are called. They resemble sea oats, but their seed heads are much smaller. Is there a type of Panicum that fits this description?

It stays relatively warm here year round, so I wouldn't have to worry about the grass dying out in the winter. What type of Panicum would do well in these warm, salty conditions?

By StarJo — On Apr 10, 2012

I have some Panicum Shenandoah growing along the edges of my driveway. Since I only mow up to the first blade of grass that touches the ground, I don't have to worry about hitting any rocks on the edges of my driveway, because the grass keeps them locked in place.

This variety of Panicum only grows about a foot tall. To me, that is the perfect height. It's not too tall to see over, yet it is tall enough to be visually interesting and to prevent erosion on the driveway, which is made of dirt and gravel.

The blades start to turn red on the tips early on, and they turn really red during the fall. I love ornamental grasses that offer more than the average green.

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