University of Illinois Extension

2014 Perennial Plant of the Year

Panicum Virgatum

Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ is the Perennial Plant Association’s 2014 Perennial Plant of the Year™. Panicum virgatum, pronounced PANic-um ver-GATE-um, carries the common name of switch grass or switchgrass, said a Martha Smith, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“This warm-season perennial grass has blue-green foliage and stands more erect than is typical of the species. ‘Northwind’ is only the third ornamental grass to be named Plant of the Year, following Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’, 2001, and Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, 2009,” said Smith.

The genus Panicum, native to North America, is a member of the Poaceae family, formerly Gramineae. Regardless of nomenclature, members of Panicum are excellent perennial grasses for the landscape. The genus botanical name (Panicum) is thought to derive from the Latin pan, bread. One species (P. miliaceum, common millet) has been used for centuries to make flour.

Roy Diblik selected ‘Northwind’ from a population of Panicum virgatum he raised using wild-collected seed from plants growing along railroad tracks in South Elgin, Illinois. In July 1983, he noticed that one plant had wider leaves and a very upright growth habit, unlike the typical arching form of the others. He gradually built up stock of the upright one. In 1992, when Northwind Perennial Farm opened, he introduced it and named it ‘Northwind’. Having been discovered in Illinois and trialed in southern Wisconsin, ‘Northwind’ is hardy to USDA zones 4 to 10. Winter form is equally as upright as long as we don’t experience consecutive heavy wet snowfalls.

Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ spreads slowly to form erect clumps of slender, steel-blue leaves about five feet tall. In late summer, the foliage is topped by a haze of showy, finely-textured flower panicles that rise to six or even seven feet, opening golden yellow and maturing to beige. Fall color is an attractive golden yellow.

‘Northwind’ is very easy to grow and enhances any sunny border or light shade garden, not just a native, meadow- or prairie-style garden. ‘Northwind’ has a refined, garden-worthy appearance and habit and is comfortable in both formal and informal gardens. Deep roots make ‘Northwind’ remarkably drought-tolerant once established. Like most ornamental grasses, Panicum ‘Northwind’ is seldom eaten by deer. There are no serious insect or disease problems with switchgrass. Plants are best divided in spring.

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