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.

15 Responses

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  2. Ben Logan says:

    Great posting! I live in the Southern Appalachians at 200′ elevation in western VA. Technically Zone 7a now. Springs and Falls are long and cool. Summers are hot but not very humid. This Elymus is becoming popular as a foundation planting for new architecture. Gotta admit, it looks fantastic as a solid planting against swooping concrete.

    I like it with variegated Bishop’s Weed–thug against thug. I also have it planted on a bank above yellow Daylilies. The blue background really pops out the yellow blooms.

    Keep it up. You’re quite a fine writer. I need to follow your posting and hopefully learn some tips.:-}

  3. Hi Tom! Ever grow this grass when you lived hereabouts? I tried it last year and can attest to what Darke says about it not liking heat and humidity. We had an incredibly droughty yet humid summer, and it absolutely languished in my full sun bed. A friend in NH also tried it last year in part shade, though, and it thrived. I’m still a little bitter… It really is the best blue grass by far. (I am interested in trying Sorghastrum ‘Sioux Blue’ John mentioned.)

  4. Deirdre says:

    I have had the blue wheatgrass for years in Seattle. When I bought it they said it would have a rust problem, but I just keep it in an area with lots of sun and goood air movement, and haven’t had a problem. It hasn’t seeded itself around at all, and I do divide it periodically because I have it in a pot the same color as the foliage, and it seems to need renewal occasionally.

  5. I find Carex nigra to be very blue and reliable. I don’t think I have done anything to it since I planted it 10 years ago and it just keeps going. As a nursery owner, I am generally annoyed with the use of blue to describe foliage and certain flowers. It is down right embarrassing to try and explain to someone why a certain hosta or flower is “blue” when it’s clearly not. I call it horticultural blue, which I describe as a marketing ploy because blue is considered more desirable.

  6. tomfischer says:

    Mary Ann–see what Ian has to say below. I’ve seen nary a seedling in my own garden, however. But it is absolutely nothing like Leymus arenarius, that notorious thug that Gertrude Jekyll (and Christopher Lloyd) liked so much. And my friend Paul at Xera Plants says it’s “very well behaved.” You should definitely give it a try–it’s a stunner.

  7. Mary Ann says:

    Most of the lyme grasses I’ve come across are dreadfully invasive. What, dear friend, do you know about magellanicus’s tendencies? Like Magellan, a traveler? If not, I would LOVE to pair it up w/some hotties. Penstemons in particular.

  8. Ian Barclay says:

    I’ve seen Elymus magellanicus reseed itself here in Sequim. It doesn’t seem to have any problems persisting as long as drainage is adequate.

  9. Tom Fischer says:

    George–
    I think Rhodocoma capensis is kind of on the edge in Portland. My friend Paul Bonine, co-owner of Xera Plants, says it will be cut to the ground at 15 degrees F but will resprout from the base. I made the mistake of cutting mine back hard after the winter of 2009/10, and they never really recovered. But restios are so cool that it’s worthwhile experimenting with them, even if there’s an occasional disappointment.

  10. george says:

    um, gonna shoot off topic here. i found your blog by searching for Rhodocoma capensis. just threw in a plant in my portland garden. how has yours done? i am a bit concerned about it hardiness…

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