Prairie Flame Switch GrassPanicum virgatum ‘Prairie Fire' (PP# 19,367)
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Panicum virgatum ‘Prairie Fire' (PP# 19,367)
Outdoor Growing zone
Full Sun, Partial Sun
The Prairie Fire Switch Grass is an attractive ornamental grass growing 4 to 6 feet tall. It has burgundy-red leaves from early mid-summer all through fall, that curl over in an attractive way. The feathery red seed-heads add to the beauty later in the season. It is non-invasive and grows easily in most gardens, with good drought resistance. Grow it as an accent in shrub or flower beds, or on slopes and banks among rocks and gravel. It’s an excellent plant for containers and boxes as well.
Full sun will develop the richest coloring in the Prairie Fire Switch Grass, but it can take a little partial shade as well. It will grow in most areas, including places that are intermittently wet. Once established it has good drought tolerance, and grows best in areas that are not too fertile or constantly damp. There are no significant pests or diseases, and deer don’t normally eat it. Cutting short once a year, in late fall or spring, is all the care needed.
The unique look of ornamental grasses, and the easy way they grow, make them super-desirable in any garden. Most of them are green, silvery or blue, but some bring a desirable red into play, making striking features. They contrast well with the lush greenness of most shrubs, or work equally-well with foliage in other colors. You can’t do better than the Prairie Fire Switch Grass when it comes to a grass that combines toughness and easy-care with good looks and color. Standing a moderate 5 feet tall, with a bold, fountain-like look, the broad red leaves and burgundy seed-heads make a great show through the second half of summer and all of the fall, when earlier plants are looking less vibrant. If you have been discouraged from growing grasses by the nasty way some of them spread, don’t worry. This is one that stays exactly where it is put, just expanding a little into a substantial clump, but never taking over. For a modern look that isn’t drab and colorless, nothing beats it.
The Prairie Fire Switch Grass is an upright grass with a strong vertical line that expands into a fountain of leaves arching up and over. It will soon become a strong clump, reaching between 4 and 6 feet tall, and spreading perhaps 3 feet across – large enough to make a statement, but not so big as to overpower a smaller garden. The sturdy stems carry leaves that are relatively broad, almost an inch across at their widest, and growing upright, before curving elegantly over. When the new leaves first develop they are green, but by early summer they have turned a rich burgundy red, and they hold that color until mid-fall, when they turn butter yellow.
Each stem ends in a flower spike, and these are about 8 inches long, with very long, feathery threads projecting from them. They too are deep red, and together with the foliage make this an impressive plant, with a rugged look. The leaves and flower stalks die when cold weather arrives, but they don’t easily collapse, so this grass remains attractive through winter, with its soft tan leaves looking great among a light snow fall, or against the black earth.
The wonderful thing about grasses – and the Prairie Fire Switch Grass is no exception – is how versatile they are. In groups or alone they fit perfectly into beds of shrubs or flowers, and they look just as good in a solo planting. That look, with a simple line of an ornamental grass along a path or placed in a gravel bed, is super-modern and perfect for a city garden or modern home. Yet as a native species it is also perfect for natural gardens. This grass is great at the beach cottage, and in semi-wild settings, and it looks superb in a planter box or tub. There are almost no places in a garden where it looks out of place. The seed heads cut and dry well for winter decoration.
Born on the Prairies, this grass is tough and reliable from zone 4 all the way through zone 9.
Full sun is best for sturdy growth, resistance to falling, and most importantly for that bold red color to develop properly. Sunny places are often dry, and with a root system that can tap water reserves 10 feet down, the Prairie Fire Switch Grass can handle dryness, once established. Yet it grows just as well in intermittently damp places, but avoid places that are always wet, because this will make the growth too soft and floppy. It does best in poorer sandy or clay soils, so you don’t need to make a big deal of site preparation. Just break up the soil over a good space, and plant away. Only spots that are always very, very dry will deter it from growing well.
There is no need to worry about pests or diseases with this plant, and deer normally leave it alone. The only care needed is an annual cutting down to a few inches tall. You can do this in late fall or in early spring – this grass is a warm season type, so it doesn’t make rapid growth in spring, holding back until the warmer weather arrives, and making cutting down in early spring an easy option. In areas with a lot of snow it is probably best to cut it down in early winter for an easy clean-up and to avoid it collapsing on surrounding plants under the weight.
Switch grass, Panicum virgatum, can be found growing from southern Canada all the way down into Mexico, and it’s a vital species in the tallgrass prairie ecosystem. Interest in ornamental grass began first in Europe, and it was there that the early varieties of switch grass were developed, before arriving in America. One is called ‘Rotstrahlbusch’, which means ‘the red ray bush’. It’s a form developed in Germany before 1970 by the German plant breeder and garden designer Karl Foerster. It slowly turns red through summer, looking its best only in fall. ‘Heavy Metal’ is another form, selected by the Maryland nurseryman Kurt Bluemel, with reddish seed heads, but green leaves. Gary Trucks is a successful landscaper and plant breeder, owning Amber Wave Gardens near Benton Harbor, Michigan. In 2001 he crossed those two varieties together, and among the seedlings he found a strong, red-leafed plant that he patented as ‘Prairie Fire’ in 2008.
We love this sturdy and vibrantly colored grass, and you will too. But order now because ornamental grasses of this quality are always in great demand, and we just can’t keep them in stock for long at all.