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One of the ornamental grasses that sprouts the earliest in the spring is feather reed grass. This member of the Poaceae, or grass, family delights gardeners and landscapers with its upright architectural form. Often, the long-lasting, elegant inflorescences, or flower stalks, last throughout the winter, giving personality to a barren, dormant garden area.
Feather reed grass is a slow-spreading, clump-forming perennial grass that has arching linear, flat leaves that usually range between 18 to 36 inches (45 to 90 cm) long. The attractive leaves are slightly glossy and mid-green in color. The long leaves usually rustle with breezes or light winds, giving a musical quality to a garden. Generally, when the wind blows — especially in the dormant garden — the sight of the swaying grass adds the element of movement to an otherwise sedentary landscape.
Rising from the clump of leaves, the erect stems often grow to be about 3 to 5 feet (about 1 to 1.5 m) tall, but they may rise to heights of 6 feet (1.8 m) in ideal conditions. At the ends of the stiff unbranched stems, the inflorescences grow in branching, narrow panicles, which typically are 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) long. The inflorescences generally are a soft, silvery beige when they first open. Typically, they age to a bronze or pale purple-brown in mid- to late summer and early autumn.
This grass is native in parts of Europe and Russia and is widely distributed in temperate zones in the northern hemisphere. On the United States Department of Agriculture's hardiness chart, most nurseries list it as being hardy in zones five through nine, but people in other regions have successfully raised it. Where it is hardy, growers raise it as a perennial, but where it is not hardy, gardeners and landscapers plant it as an annual.
Generally, feather reed grass is easy to grow. In its natural habitat, it grows in marshland and moist woodlands. Growers typically have the best results when they raise the grass in moist, humus-rich soil in full sun or partial shade. Some growers have success growing it in poorer soil conditions, but usually it does not reach its full potential in height and mass. In early spring or late winter before the grass sprouts, gardeners should cut down the last year's growth.
When wanting to research or buy feather reed grass plants, a gardener will find it listed under various names. Generally, it is known as Calamagrostis acutiflora, but some sources list it as Calamagrostis x acutiflora or Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘stricta,' which is an older name. The x denotes that it is a sexual hybrid. meaning that it is a cross between species or genera plants.
There are several cultivars of the feather reed grass. One of the most popular is C. x acutiflora, which is a natural hybrid of C. epigejos and C. arundinacea. Karl Foerster introduced it to the nursery trade in 1950, and there is a cultivar named 'Karl Foerster'. It is so similar to C. x acutiflora 'stricta' that some nurseries and growers confuse the two. The main difference is that 'Karl Foerster' does not self-seed; therefore, it is not an invasive grass.