Plant of the Week: Shenandoah Red Switch Grass

Shenandoah red switch grass in the summer. Photo by Friends of the High LineShenandoah red switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’) is accented by airy reddish-pink panicles in the summer. Photo by Friends of the High Line

The High Line’s planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 300 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line’s rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today.

This week we share one of our gardeners’ current favorites with you.

The first week of August is upon us, ushering in late summer and thoughts of days spent having barbeques in our backyards, spending time by the beach, or hiking with friends through windswept fields. Whatever your favorite summertime pastime may be, one thing ties all these different memories and the landscapes that accompany them together – grasses.

EnlargeShenandoah red switch grass. Photo by Friends of the High Line

Tall grasses are almost synonymous with summer, whether in windswept sand dunes, in fields of swaying grass blades, or as the soft “green carpet” some of us spend all year tending. Our love for grasses and the multi-seasonal interest they offer is what gave rise to the popularity of ornamental grasses. Whether in botanical gardens or backyard home gardens, they offer structure and texture to a planting bed throughout the seasons.

The High Line’s planting design is infused throughout with several varieties of grasses or grass-like plants. They fulfill one of the most important aspects of our design: year-round interest. One grass variety that stands out the most and becomes more and more impressive as we near fall is the cultivated variety Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah,’ commonly known as Shenandoah red switch grass. Panicum virgatum belongs to the Poaceae family, which is the fifth-largest plant family, containing more than 10,000 domesticated and wild species. It is estimated that grasslands comprise 20% of the world’s vegetation and span several of the globe's biomes. Plants in the family Poaceae are often considered to be the most important of all plant families to human economies. It includes the staple food grains and cereal crops grown around the world, such as corn, wheat, and barley. It also includes turf species, forage grasses (which are crucial for livestock), and even bamboo, which is widely used for construction throughout East Asia.

Panicum virgatum, a warm-season grass, is native to North American prairies stretching from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah,’ a cultivar discovered by Hans Simon in Germany from seedlings of Panicum virgatum ‘Hanse Hermes,’ was introduced to North America and became a huge hit for its amazing burgundy color that makes it a great substitute for the exotic Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrical).

‘Shenandoah’ red switch grass became quickly valued as a popular ornamental grass for its erect form creating a three- to four-foot clump. In spring, its foliage starts out with a bluish-green color, then quickly starts to pick up hues of burgundy. In summer, these burgundy hues are accented by airy reddish-pink panicles that rise a foot or two above the foliage. Its pinkish plumes turn beige as the seeds mature in fall, along with its foliage, creating a great contrast during the winter months. Here at the High Line, many of our other varieties of plants – including the few varieties of Panicum virgatum – are cut back in early spring to allow for the remnants of these plants to create winter interest.

EnlargeShenandoah red switch grass in winter. Photo by Friends of the High Line

Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ and other cultivars of Panicum are typically very hardy and tolerant plants that not only offer multi-seasonal ornamental interest but have utilitarian and ecological use as well.

Panicum prefers full sun and moist, organically rich soil, but can forgivingly tolerate partial sun, heavy clay to sandy soil, and dry slopes to boggy areas. It is even tolerant of coastal conditions, including salt spray and high winds. This wide spectrum of tolerance to different types of environmental conditions makes it a great choice for water or rain gardens. Its dense rhizomatous root system and drought tolerance make it a great choice for sloped beds or swales to help control erosion.

Furthermore, as a native species of grass in North America it serves as a great host plant for local birds and other fauna, which is another good reason to not cut back the plant's growth until early spring. In the garden it is best presented when planted in groupings or sweeps and fits perfectly anywhere from perennial beds to naturalized gardens and meadows.

When visiting the High Line you can spot this plant between Little West 12th Street and West 14th Street ,as well as between West 17th Street and West 20th Street.

Download our August bloom list.

Our horticultural team counts on members and friends like you to help keep the High Line beautiful and thriving. Join our community of supporters who play an essential role in the High Line’s most important gardening projects – become a member of Friends of the High Line today!

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