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Shade-brightening Japanese forest grass garners top perennial award

Fall color — ‘Aureola’ Japanese forest grass late-season hue blends nicely with the autumn color of a foam flower (Tiarella) ‘Crow Feather.’ © Photo courtesy Walters Gardens

Fall color — ‘Aureola’ Japanese forest grass' late-season hue blends nicely with the autumn color of a foam flower (Tiarella) ‘Crow Feather.’ © Photo courtesy Walters Gardens

A lovely ornamental grass has been named the 2009 Perennial Plant of the Year.

‘Aureola’ is a golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra), a perfect plant for softening the front edge of a border, working as a ground cover or adding a bright spot in the perennial bed. It also can be used as a container plant for summer color and transplanted to the ground in fall, if desired.

Hakonechloa macra is native to Honshu Island, Japan. Hakon refers to the Japanese region and chloa is the Greek word for grass, according to the Perennial Plant Association , a not-for-profit organization made up of educators, plant breeders, growers and others. Each year members make nominations and vote on their favorite perennial. Previous popular winners include ‘Mainacht’ or May Night salvia, ‘David’ phlox and ‘Husker Red’ penstemon.

Like other ornamental grasses, golden Japanese forest grass adds soft, graceful movement and sound to the landscape. ‘Aureola’ forms a mound of cascading layers of one-half inch wide bright yellow blades with green stripes. A mound gets 12 to 18 inches tall and up to 24 inches wide. The plant has small, delicate flowers in late summer and fall, but they are not particularly showy. In fall, the blades take on a pinkish-red hue. In cold climates like Indiana, the plant dies back in winter. In warmer zones, the plant may be evergreen.

Hardy in USDA Zones 5 through 8, golden Japanese forest grass does best with four to six hours of sun a day, or part shade. Morning sun would be ideal. If the plant will be in a west- or south-facing garden, provide dappled shade. The more shade, the less golden the color. The plant prefers soil that is moist, well drained and rich in organic matter.

Gentle cascade - Japanese forest grass softens the edge of a sidewalk or wall while brightening a shady spot.

Gentle cascade - Japanese forest grass softens the edge of a sidewalk or wall while brightening a shady spot.

‘Aureola’ is one of my favorite plants. It is easy and it brightens some of the darker landscape spots. Its form and texture work extremely well with other part-sun and shade plants. The fine foliage of this grass complements the bolder leaves of hosta, coral bells (Heuchera), heucherella, hellebores (Helleborus), foam flower (Tiarella) and epimedium. ‘Aureola’ also does nicely around shrubs and trees. When planted in masses, a sea of grass forms a lush ground cover.

The maintenance on this plant is pretty low. Cut back to the ground in early winter or when it starts to look bad. Divide in spring. It has few disease or insect problems and, as a bonus, the deer do not seem to favor this grass. Besides ‘Aureola,’ there are other golden cultivars on the market. ‘Bene Kaze,’ is an all-green variety.

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