Three Ornamental grasses for the shade or woodland garden

This lovely little Carex holds its green foliage into the fall and through the winter in our back woodland garden where it grows among the birches in the birch grove.

Ornamental grasses have become an important element in most landscapes, but what do you do if your woodland garden is primarily a shade garden?

Finding grasses that do well in the shade is not easy. Most of today’s popular ornamental grasses – elegant Miscanthus, Pennisetums, Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium Scoparium) – all want and need full sun to look their best. Others want at least part sun to flourish in a landscape design. Bottlebrush Rye grass, Japanese Forest Grass and a variety of sedges are exceptions to this rule and actually prefer a shady landscape to perform their best.

Best shade-loving ornamental grasses

Let’s take a closer look at these three shade-loving grasses for the woodland garden.


The impressive inflorescenceof the Bottlebrush Rye grass is just one of its many attributes that make in a standout in the woodland or shade garden.


Bottlebrush Rye grass: A trusted woodland performer

Probably the best and most recommended native grass for the shade or woodland garden is Bottlebrush Rye (Elymus hystrix).

Although these large, native to parts of the Northeastern United States and Ontario, grasses can survive in full sun, they prefer to grow in shade or part shade where they can grow up to 3-feet-tall. The attractive grasses are hardy from zones 4-7.

Bottlebrush grass is easy to distinguish from other ornamental grasses because of its widely-spaced, open, spreading, long spikelets. As the seeds mature throughout the summer, the spikelets develop a lovely straw colour making it a strong fall performer.

Some of the stems can reach heights of more than 3-feet tall. The grass has a fibrous root system and spreads primarily by reseeding.

We are planning to use this grass in planters this summer to form a privacy-type hedge for native grass. I will report back on our success with this project over the summer months.

The arching –up to 12-inch leaves – are linear, smooth, with a grayish to dark green colouring.

Bottlebrush likes dry to medium soil and will grow in a variety of soil types from clay loam to a sandy loam.

This is one of the most shade-tolerant tall native grasses you’ll find that is a strong performer in most woodland situations whether it’s dry shade, or full sun with enough moisture. The long green inflorescences emerge on three feet all stems where they perform their best in part shade with moist, well drained soil.

The inflorescences that emerge in mid to late summer resemble bottle brushes, hence the common name “Bottlebrush.”

Bottlebrush Rye is classified as a cool season perennial, which means it will put on growth in spring rather than waiting until the hotter summer temperatures take root.

It is particularly suitable to a woodland garden and is perfect as a great low-maintenance accent or border plant.

You can find the grasses growing naturally in average to high quality woodlands and habitats adjacent to these woodlands. But they can also be found in many other less favourable woodland areas including rocky upland woodlands, woodland borders and along woodland paths as well as small meadows in wooded areas, and along shaded riverbanks.

Does Bottlebrush grass attract butterflies and pollinators?

Although grasses may not be the first plant that comes to mind when you think of butterflies and other pollinators, they can be important host plants and provide habitat for overwintering insects and other larvae.

Bottlebrush grass is actually the host plant for the caterpillars of a the attractive Northern Pearly Eye butterfly, Enodia anthedon. Don’t be surprised to see the caterpillars feeding on the plants foliage. It is also a host for the larvae of several leaf-mining and other moths as well as aphids and leafhoppers.

Several birds species are also attracted to the grasses seeds in the fall and early winter.

For more specific information on what fauna is attracted to the grasses, go to Illinois Wildflowers.

You might also like to read my post on Why we should leave our ornamental grasses standing all winter.

Another post of interest is Three of the best ornamental grasses for sun or shade.

Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa) in fall colour in our Japanese-inspired front farden

Japanese Forest Grass is a real show stopper in the shade garden

Although not a native grass to the United States or Canada, Hakonechloa (Japanese Forest Grass) is a highly ornamental, warm season grass and a standout in any woodland or shady garden landscape.

We have it growing in multiple areas within our woodland, including in the front yard where it provides structure for the Japanese-inspired garden as well as along the path leading to our porch and front door.

Hakonechloa is the perfect addition to a shady area when you want to adds a real hit of glorious chartreuse colour to a full-shade area of the garden, where its graceful arching form lends a softness and elegance to the landscape and its yellow and green leaves are given the opportunity to really shine. It can handle part shade but will struggle to show its best colours in full sun.

This grass, native to eastern Asia, is extremely well behaved and one of the few grasses that prefers full shade. It never gets too high so it also works well in the front or middle of a large border.

It’s available both as a form as well as the even more beautiful all-gold variety. The yellow and green leaves turn red and purple shades in the fall before turning to the familiar winter tan colour where they continue to provide interest throughout the winter.

For more on Japanese Forest Grass and other stalwart grasses for your woodland, be sure to check out my post featuring Three of the Best Ornamental Grasses for the garden.

These small sedge grasses grow beneath birch trees and alongside the native grass Northern Sea Oats.

Pennsylvania Sedge: There’s a Carex to suit every need

Although still not widely known and certainly not used in great abundances in most landscapes, sedges offer the shade or woodland gardener the perfect opportunity to add grass-like foliage to your garden design.

In our garden, I’ve planted a number of variegated sedges around our birch grove to add interest in the space between the trees.

The sedge family of plants is quite large and needs further exploration, if you are looking to solve a specific problem.

One Sedge that needs highlighting when it comes to woodland gardening is Pennsylvania Sedge.

Pennsylvania Sedge sports fine textured leaves, that reach about six inches in height. It’s creeping habit make this sedge the perfect lawn alternative for dry soils in a woodland garden.

Given the right conditions, this solid green sedge that requires a well-drained soil, in light to full shade, will fill in to form a dense low-growing, maintenance free groundcover.

Other shade loving sedges include:

Appalachian SedgeCarex appalachica: Forms a nice clump with narrow leaves only getting 6-8 inches tall. It is an appealing, all-green, shade to part sun-loving sedge that is quite appealing.

Bristle-Leaf Sedge – Carex eburnea: A fine-leaved sedge ideal as both a ground cover or lawn replacement in a shady area. Dark green, fountain-like clumps that reach between 6-12 inches are lovely additions to any landscape and they are soft to the touch making them family friendly. The individual tufts eventually grow together forming a thick carpet that turns a lovely tan colour in fall.

One of the best sources for information on native sedges is The Native Plant Herald from Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin. You can check out their informative site here.

Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.

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