Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ – Northwind switchgrass
By Debra Knapke
The new year is full of announcements of the various 2014 “picks”, likes and awards of plants, colors, animals and more. One announcement I eagerly await is the Perennial Plant of the Year, selected by the members of the Perennial Plant Association. This choice is based on what growers, sellers, designers and educators think is a good garden plant.
Let’s define a good garden plant:
• it can tolerate a wide range of garden conditions
• it has multiple-season interest
• it has lower maintenance requirements
• it is relatively pest and disease free
• it plays well with others in the garden
• it has stood the test of time and place, and has shown itself worthy of receiving this award
Northwind switchgrass, a child of plants that grew in a railroad easement in Illinois, is a good garden plant. The kudos go to Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennial Farm in Illinois who selected ‘Northwind’ from seed he collected in the early 1990’s.
Our native switchgrass is beautiful. In the late summer you can still see it in open fields – and railway easements – with its arching habit and its soft pink to purple flowers that mature to golden seedheads. This is a plant that takes care of itself and is part of the native fabric of our prairies. Some of the earlier selections were not able to adjust to the good life of the perennial garden – lots of water, fertilizer and sometimes, not enough sun. They flopped. Northwind is different with its upright habit, golden flowers and olive toned leaves that are shaded with blue. It tolerates moist to dry soils, and grows best in full sun where it will show its colors.
Korean feather reed grass (Calamagrostis cultivars) is often the first choice when a strong vertical line is desired in the garden. Northwind switchgrass is an alternative that also offers excellent fall color. And Northwind’s native pedigree will make it a good choice for gardeners who want to focus on using native plants and creating landscape habitats such as rain gardens, meadows and wildlife refuges.
Photo Credits: Thanks to John Hoffman of Hoffman Nursery, Inc.