I had the opportunity to accompany Christine Fleener from the University of Illinois in the field for a day doing research on Japanese eualia grass, Miscanthus sinensis, at some east coast sites where it has naturalized. One of those sites is found at Hildacy Farm, our headquarters and a 55-acre preserve.
Miscanthus is an ornamental grass that grows in clumps and began to become popular in the 1990’s. It is easy to grow although it does need to be divided every few years or it will get a dead spot in the middle, and some varieties have been known to seed into areas where it is not wanted.
Researchers at University of Illinois are looking into using miscanthus as a biofuel but are looking at ways it could be bred to be less invasive.
I know of four main sites in our region where it has escaped from cultivation and naturalized, and a number of other places where an individual plant has popped up unplanted. There is a famous site along the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Valley Forge, and it can be seen elsewhere along that highway. There are also populations near Quaketown, Fort Washington, and our site at Hildacy Farm, where most of it has been controlled.
When I see it planted in landscaping anywhere near a meadow I get nervous because this could be a threat to the native plants in that meadow and the natural communities that depend on them. Where it is used in landscaping near our preserves we can control the plants as they show up in the meadow but more will likely seed in. Over the years we have controlled many plants in the meadows and also planted trees in some meadows to change the cultural conditions there; miscanthus doesn’t grow in the shade of the forest and an established canopy also reduces the pressure from other invasive plants.
Christine Fleener is collecting roots and seeds from naturalized populations so that they can be studied in the lab. Their genes will be compared with those of other populations. We dug many of the remaining plants at Hildacy, collected seed from plants along Route 252, then traveled to the Quakertown swamp to see the plants that grow there. Christine took the first two pictures in this entry.
I keep my eye out for other populations now. At first glance at this time of year Phragmites australis looks superficially like miscanthus, but phragmites grows much taller, has a tighter inflorescence, and is much more aggressive in wet, disturbed, low-maintenance sites such as powerline rights-of-way and roadside ditches.
I don’t recommend planting miscanthus in the landscape. Choose instead a native clump-forming grass such as switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), or little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). We have some of these planted in the garden beds at the preserve center barn at Crow’s Nest; another place to see them used ornamentally is in front of the management center at our Gwynedd Wildlife Preserve.