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Fountain grass

Fountain grass plant

Fountain grass bristly seed heads

Swamp foxtail (L) & fountain grass (R)

Swamp foxtail (L) & fountain grass (R) close-up

Swamp foxtail (L) & fountain grass (R) ligules

Setaria gracilis, a pigeon grass

Setaria gracilis close-up

Setaria pumila, a pigeon grass

Setaria verticillata, whorled pigeon grass

Setaria verticillata, close-up

Pennisetum advena 'Rubrum'

 


BOTANICAL NAME:

Pennisetum setaceum


Family:

Poaceae

Status:

Fountain grass is declared noxious in class 5 throughout NSW (it cannot be propagated, sold or knowingly distributed). It has become a popular garden plant, particularly in recent years as grasses have become more widely used in landscaping and would be present in many modern gardens and in municipal plantings. Fountain grass is an occasional garden escape which belongs to a genus, Pennisetum which includes several environmental and agricultural weeds. Fountain grass has proven weedy in Hawaii, the mainland USA and South Africa. It comes from northern Africa, the Middle East and south-western Asia.

Description

Fountain grass is an erect, robust tussock grass to 90cm high. Leaves are up to 3.5mm wide, with a roughened upper surface and edges. Flowers are borne on a dense purple spike 10-25cm long. Each individual floret within the spike is nested within a tuft of up to 25 fine bristles, giving the whole head a fluffy appearance.

Dispersal

Seed is probably mostly spread by wind, from plants in gardens. Dumping of garden waste could also spread this plant into native vegetation, and long distance dispersal could happen via seed in soil adhering to vehicles, machinery, livestock or clothing.

Look-alikes

A very similar plant is swamp foxtail (Pennisetum alopecuroides). This plant is also promoted as a garden plant, and as an Austalian native. It also occurs in Asia and there is some confusion as to whether it is naturally occurring in Australia as well as Asia, or is an early introduction. It only occurs in the eastern states (Qld, NSW, Victoria) and is very uncommon in Victoria. The Flora of Victoria describes it as introduced, while the Flora of NSW, where records are more common, calls it a native. Whether native or exotic, it has proven to naturalise freely from plantings, and is probably best avoided in the garden. However it is not illegal to grow this species currently.

The main point of difference between the two species is the shape and colour of the seed head. In fountain grass it is mauve to purple and narrow in shape, with more or less parallel sides. In swamp foxtail the colour is more of a red-purple and the outline of the seed head is plumper, with curving sides. The third, fourth and fifth photos above show the two plants side by side, with fountain grass on the right.

The remaining photos are of various species of pigeon grass (Setaria species) which also have cylindrical bristly seed heads.  These are all exotics and commonly occur on road verges and waste ground, particularly in moist areas.

The most obtainable replacement for fountain grass is Pennisetum advena 'Rubrum'
which can legally be sold.  It is billed as a sterile hybrid, which
will not escape from gardens, although one source states that it "rarely
seeds".  It has reddish foliage and long curving seed heads.  The final photo is of this plant.

Control

It is no longer legal to propagate or sell fountain grass. Advise your local Council weed staff if you see it being offered for sale, or the seller if it should turn up on charity stalls or at fetes and markets.  Plants can be dug up or spot-sprayed, and the seed heads should be removed for safe disposal.