I think it is safe to say that most of us are familiar with the Calamagrostis family, a reed grass with numerous cultivars, several of which are readily available to gardeners. By far the best known and most used is Calamagrostis acutifolia 'Karl Foerster,' also known as feather reed grass.
It is such a reliable grass that it is found everywhere from corporate sites (the Now Arena in Hoffman Estates features dozens of these plants) to home landscapes. Attractive massed, and effective as a specimen, it is a terrific grass. It was deservedly named Perennial Plant of the Year back in 2001.
But several years ago, I found a lovely grass growing in a primarily shady area and recognized it as a lesser known type: Calamagrostis brachytricha. This grass is more feathery in appearance than Karl Foerster, but you need not choose between them because while Karl Foerster blooms in spring, C. brachytricha blooms in fall, from September to November.
It originates in central to eastern Asia and has a height of 3 to 4 feet and a spread of 2 to 3 feet. It is listed as a full-sun plant, but I when I first saw it, it was growing under the significant shade of Austrian pines, where it looked stunning, lighting up the entire bed.
I took my cues from that observation and grow it in partial shade, where it blooms very well. Its blooms are pink, rising well above the foliage, and mature to light tan. The cultural notes I have read report it grows in medium to wet soil, but I find that it does very well in my yard without any additional water.
Maintenance is extremely low. You simply cut the clumps to the ground in late winter or early spring. It is not as rugged a plant as Miscanthus (maiden grass), and cutting it down is a breeze. It also tolerates black walnut exposure, air pollution and heavy clay soils.
C. brachytricha spreads slowly. After several years, I am seeing some small plants which I am digging out (quite easily) and moving around my yard.
I find this plant delightful, and hope that you will give it a chance, too.
• Donna Mack is a University of Illinois Extension Kane County master gardener. Email the extension office at email@example.com for more information.