The sun likes to play peek-a-boo with the clouds during the winter, but there are plants that do a pretty good job of catching whatever light shines through. Some dormant ornamental perennial grasses fall within this category. At their best, sunstruck maiden grass plumes can glitter like a collection of miniature star-studded galaxies caught at the ends of balloon sticks.
These grasses not only grab the sun’s brightness; they often take it for a dance, which may be a waltz, a samba, or anything in between or beyond. Any breeze at all will set a tempo, and the reflected sunlight will obligingly sway to the same silent tune.
The accompanying image of maiden grass was taken on one of those “partly cloudy” days. The sky was gray, then opened up bit by bit; the sun shone brightly, and the grass caught its light. Eventually, the cloud curtains closed again. The grass stayed there, waiting on the dance floor for the next shaft of sunlight to come along.
The day was cool, around twenty-seven degrees, with a breeze adding a windchill factor. When the clouds parted, they revealed a blue sky that was indescribably intense in color. Winter blue. The grass, the clouds, the sky, the sun, the breeze, the sharp air, the honking of the Canada geese, and no doubt other elements not consciously noted all combined to make it an exuberant moment to be alive. Outside.
The rise in use of ornamental grasses is often attributed to a creative landscape expert, Wolfgang Oehme. Oehme and his partner, James van Sweden, are credited with creating the New American Garden style. Some would call it a movement. At its heart, it’s an attempt to create a naturalistic-looking garden environment, one that calls to mind the American prairie. Despite this American emphasis, their designs incorporated both native and non-native plants: maiden grass, for example, is native to East Asia.
While Oehme liked to use large masses of plants, the popularity of ornamental grasses has trickled down to even the most space-constrained environments. There are many types of ornamental grasses, many of them planted with the idea of “winter interest” in mind. Their height, structure, color, and movement add attraction to what is often a still, monochromatic winter environment.
Maiden grass is popular with landscapers and gardeners, and small plantings are sprinkled around homes and businesses all over Ann Arbor. To see bunches of maiden grass all in one place, try Gallup Park, where the grass is planted extensively on a large traffic island at the entrance from Fuller Road. It also lines a walkway to the left of the island as you enter the park. The grass shines on sunny winter days.