Is your shade garden begging for some light? If so, consider brightening it with Hakonechloa macra, or Japanese forest grass. Unlike most other ornamental grasses, this variety not only tolerates, but actually thrives in shade.
Hakonechloa, a native of Japan, takes its name from Hakone, a city on the island of Honshu. This mounding, low-growing grass resembles a tiny bamboo plant, with thin, papery leaves that please the ear as well as the eye when they rustle and sway in the breeze. Patience is required, since this slow grower doesn't fully hit its stride for several years. It's worth the wait, however, because when fully mature, hakonechloa will remind you of a small green waterfall. It spreads by stolons and rhizomes, yet is not invasive. Hakonechloa does produce seed heads, but the tan-colored flowers that appear in late summer are for the most part insignificant.
Uses Although it’s a natural in a Japanese or zen garden, where its cascading form often complements or even symbolizes running water, hakonechloa enhances any style of garden. It looks especially lovely when its graceful foliage is allowed to cascade down a slope, arch over stones or spill out of a container. When placed at the front of the border, the grass softens the edges of a path or walk. Hakonechloa also works well as a foreground planting for evergreens or deciduous shrubs.
Culture Hakonechloa requires plenty of moisture, particularly in its first year when it is still becoming established. This grass prefers a rich, loamy soil, and dislikes soil that is extremely dry, heavy with clay or poorly drained. Although it is usually listed as being hardy in zones 5 through 9, hakonechloa is reportedly hardy as far north as zone 4 as long as it receives a light mulch or covering of pine boughs. Wait until early spring to cut away last season’s foliage to help ensure its survival through the cold of winter. Division isn’t necessary until the clump becomes quite large. When you do wish to divide the grass, it's best done in spring or fall.
The coloring of the leaves varies with the amount of sun the plant receives. Hakonechloa takes on its best color if it receives some sun during the morning. It will tolerate full sun in the north, but the same exposure can cause burned foliage in warmer climates.
Garden Partners The narrow, strappy leaves of hakonechloa contrast particularly well with the broad, rounded foliage of hostas. Gold and golden-green cultivars like 'Aureola' are especially attractive next to blue-leaved hostas such as 'Bressingham Blue' or 'Hadspen Blue'. Other good shade partners include ferns and hellebores. Hakonechloa’s brightness is a good foil for the dark purple foliage of Ajuga 'Chocolate Chip', the near-black leaves of Heuchera 'Obsidian' or the deep red flowers of Astilbe 'Fanal'.
Cultivars 'Aureola' Probably the most familiar hakonechloa is the variegated 'Aureola', named Perennial Plant of the Year in 2009. Of all hakonechloas, 'Aureola' is the one most often sold at garden centers. This cultivar’s golden foliage, striped with green near the margins, is a bright beacon in a shaded location. The strong contrast of its gold and green is most noticeable in partial shade. In full sun, the golden coloring is more pronounced; in full shade, leaves appear chartreuse. The plant takes on a tawny pink coloration in autumn, becoming buff-colored by winter. It reaches 12 to 18 inches high and spreads to about 18 to 36 inches wide at maturity.
H. macra 'Aureola'
H. macra 'Albo Stritata'
H. macra 'Beni Kaze'
Other cultivars of note include:
'Albo-Striata' This grass is 12 to 18 inches high with an equal spread. Its green and white striped foliage is more tolerant of sun than the golden varieties, and it’s also faster growing than other varieties.
'All Gold' As its name suggests, ‘All Gold’ has solid golden yellow foliage, even brighter in color than ‘Aureola.’ This vigorous grower has a more upright habit, reaching 8 to 12 inches high with a spread of 18 to 24 inches.
'Beni Kaze' The name of this interesting newer variety translates from Japanese as “red wind.” Its leaves are green throughout spring and summer, but come autumn they begin taking on a coppery coloring, creating a lovely mixture of chartreuse and crimson. Larger than most other cultivars, ‘Beni Kaze’ reaches 2 to 3 feet in height.
'Fubuki' ‘Fubuki’ (meaning “snowstorm”) is a shorter and more compact grass, only 14 to 18 inches high. Its creamy white leaves are striped with pale green. Foliage turns a rosy pink in the fall.
'Naomi' Eight to 16 inches high and similar to ‘Aureola’ with its yellow and green variegation, ‘Naomi’ distinguishes itself in the fall with shades of red and purple. The color is most pronounced in cool weather.
'Nicolas' ‘In autumn, the solid green leaves of this hakonechloa take on a brilliant orange and red coloring, particularly with the onset of cooler weather.
Photo Credits: Thumbnail photo of ‘All Gold’ by DG member Daylily SLP 'Albo Striata' by DG member growin 'All Gold' by Gardening in a Minute ‘Aureola’ by rc! ‘Albo Striata’ by Jennifer deGraaf ‘Beni Kaze’ by DG member Plantaholic186
About Gwen Bruno
After spending 28 years as a teacher and librarian, Gwen Bruno is now a full-time freelance writer residing in suburban Chicago. As a preschooler, she lovingly tended a small patch of weeds in her backyard. Luckily, her parents supported her budding horticultural endeavors, and she's been gardening ever since.