Elymus magellanicus: Bluest of the Blue Grasses

January 23rd, 2011

by Tom Fischer

Lately I’ve been on a blue foliage kick. Of course, by “blue” I mean the slightly chalky blue-gray-green you see in “blue” hostas, “blue” conifers, “blue” hebes, and so on. Among ornamental grasses, the adjective is most often applied to blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens), various fescues (Festuca species and cultivars), and selections of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) like ‘Dallas Blues’ and ‘Heavy Metal’. I’m not very fond of any of these, especially blue wheat grass, which in these parts never looks as though it’s making much of an effort. (Festuca ‘Elijah Blue’ is OK, I guess.) But Elymus magellanicus, one of whose common names is blue wheatgrass, gives me a definite tingle. Native to southern Patagonia (but hardy to USDA Zone 6), it makes a robust, arching, fountainlike clump about 15 to 20 inches high and 18 inches across. Rick Darke, in his superb Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes, decribes it as “semievergreen in mild climates,” but in my Zone 8 garden it collapses by midwinter. He also warns that it hates hot, humid summers and is subject to foliar rust in the south of England. All I can say is that it is problem-free here in Portland. Surprisingly, it doesn’t appear to flower, so you don’t have the distraction (or benefit, depending on your point of view) of plumes or tassels. Maybe the flowers are just extremely subtle.

But really, with Elymus magellanicus, the color’s the thing. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “almost electric-blue,” as Rick does, but it has easily the bluest blue leaf of any plant I grow. And, among the greens, sages, purples, olives, and bronzes of other foliage, it’s an extraordinarily strong color—and not always easy to pair successfully. It seems to have an affinity for scarlet flowers and the glaucous purple you find in some canna foliage. I like it best, however, with warm coral pinks, which I supply in the form of Penstemon barbatus ‘Schooley’s Coral’, Schizostylis coccinea ‘Oregon Sunset’, Kniphofia ‘Timothy’, and Salvia ‘California Sunset’. Throw in some pale yellows and some deep blues and purples and you get a wonderfully opalescent effect. Digging Dog Nursery, in Albion, California, recommends pairing it with the bright green Carex divulsa—something I’d like to try this spring.

I’d be very interested to hear from those of you who are growing it in other parts of the country. Is it doing well? Did it up and die? Or peter out ignominiously? Do please share.

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