Seslerias: Versatile Groundcover Meadow Grasses

By: John Greenlee

John Greenlee is an internationally known landscape designer, horticulturist, author, and nurseryman specializing in the cultivation and study of grasses and…

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Summer 2022

Without question, the most beautiful and versatile of all the groundcover meadow grasses are the moor grasses (Sesleria).

Moor grasses tick off all the boxes you need in a meadow grass. They are evergreen, clumping, long lived, and well behaved. Tolerant to a wide variety of soils and climates, they have been my go-to grasses for making meadows for over 25 years. The moor grasses have proved themselves in West Coast gardens from San Diego to Seattle. Few other grasses can make such claims. Although they are native to Europe, the moor grasses are among the best-selling ornamental grasses up and down the West Coast.  They thrive in meadows large and small, as they manage to be naturalistic but tidy at the same time. Their flowers are noticeable and showy, but never messy.

Campo Azul moor grass (Sesleria autumnalis syn. S. autumnalis ‘Campo Verde’). Photo: Greenlee & Associates

The common name of moor grass is misleading. While adapted to limestone, the moor grasses are not necessarily from damp conditions, but rather the grasslands of Southern Europe, which were under Moorish rule. They range in nature from the mists of Scotland and Norway to the heat of Italy and Greece. Southern European species and their hybrids make the best West Coast garden plants.

Most moor grasses grow 18 inches to 24 inches tall and as wide and are clumping grasses for full sun to part shade. Most are cold tolerant to US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Zone 4 and will grow in almost every Western climate except the desert. They can tolerate coastal conditions and hot inland climates, but they do better with some shade in the afternoon. They are amazingly drought tolerant and can thrive with once-a-week watering in most soils once established.

Moor grasses are invaluable for converting small, unused lawns into meadows. Since they come in various foliage colors, moor grasses can be worked into almost any garden scheme. They are bright green, gray-green, silver, dark green, and two-toned green with white underneath. There is bound to be a foliage color to suit the most discerning gardener.

A small drift of moor grasses makes a wonderful, cool grass panel that can be easily accessorized with bulbs, perennials, and annuals that grow happily between their handsome foliage, requiring only a light trim of spent seed heads and foliage tips in fall or winter. Moor grasses are low on maintenance and high on performance.

A mixed Sesleria meadow with Greenlee moor grass (Sesleria x ‘Greenlee’s Hybrid’) and Autumn moor grass (Sesleria autumnalis). Photo: Greenlee & Associates

Favorite moor grasses

Autumn moor grass (Sesleria autumnalis)

The bright yellow-green foliage grows 12 to 16 inches high. This grass is topped just above the leaves with snowy white florets that ripen to slender golden seed heads that are attractive and tidy. I space plants 12 inches to 18 inches apart, depending on the flowering accents that I place between the clumps. There is some variation in seed-grown plants, so the identical clones of S. autumnalis ‘Fine Leaf’ and S. autumnalis ‘Campo Verde’ are the most compact and uniform of nursery offerings.

Left: Autumn moor grass (Sesleria autumnalis ‘Campo Verde’). Photo: Greenlee & Associates
Right: Campo Azul moor grass (Sesleria x ‘Campo Azul’). Photo: Greenlee & Associates

Greenlee moor grass (Sesleria x ‘Greenlee Hybrid’ or ‘Greenlee’s Hybrid’)

Fast becoming the most popular of the moor grasses in Europe, ‘Greenlee’s Hybrid’ was a seedling selection from my old nursery in Pomona, California, that has risen to the top of the meadow grass ranks for its rich green color and compact habit. Greenlee moor grass grows to 12 inches high and as wide, it has flowers that emerge to a rose-purple and dry to an attractive tan color at maturity. I space them 12 to 18 inches apart.

Two examples of plantings of Greenlee moor grass (Sesleria x ‘Greenlee’s Hybrid’). Photo: Greenlee & Associates

Green moor grass (Sesleria heufleriana)

This grass grows 18 inches high and as wide. This is an underused moor grass. It has leaves that are dark green above with a powdery glaucous white underside. The flowers emerge blackish brown with creamy yellow stamens and that become attractive seed heads later in the season. They are somewhat hard to find in nurseries but are worth tracking down. I space them 16 to 24 inches on center.

Left: Green moor grass (Sesleria heufleriana) with Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima). Photo: Greenlee & Associates
Right: Gray moor grass (Sesleria nitida). Photo: Greenlee & Associates

Gray moor grass (Sesleria nitida)

This grass has beautiful gray leaves with have sharp prickly leaf tips that distinguish it from Sesleria x ‘Campo Azul’.

This Sesleria needs excellent drainage to thrive and does not like heavy soil. It flowers in early March and has black florets with whitish stamens that are perhaps the showiest flowers of the moor grasses. Not as cold tolerant as other moor grasses, they thrive in USDA Zones 7–9. I plant them 12 to 18 inches on-center.


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New cultivars

Several new moor grasses have attracted a lot of attention and are sure to become garden favorites as they become more available in nurseries.

Brushstrokes moor grass (Sesleria x ‘Brushstrokes’)

Another outstanding selection from our old nursery is this Sesleria ‘Brushstrokes’. It has compact two-toned blue-green foliage that is eight to 10 inches high and as wide, with showy flowers on tall, slender spikes 18 to 24 inches above the leaves. This is unlike any other moor grass we have seen! It catches the light and the afternoon breeze. This new variety will captivate you with its subtle charm.

Left: Brushstrokes moor grass (Sesleria x ‘Brushstrokes’). Photo: Greenlee & Associates
Right: Brushstrokes moor grass (Sesleria x ‘Brushstrokes’) with Marsh Afrikaner (Gladiolus tristis) bulbs. Photo: Greenlee & Associates

 

Campo Azul moor grass (Sesleria ‘Campo Azul’)

This fabulous new selection from Native Sons Nursery in Arroyo Grande California came from a batch of S. autumnalis seedlings and this moor grass is a winner. It has steel gray foliage and grows 18 to 24 inches high and as wide and is topped by showy flowers that emerge whitish and rise 12 to 18 inches above the leaves. This is a stronger, taller gray moor grass than S. nitida. We think this one is going to be a great addition to West Coast gardens.

Autumn moor grass (Sesleria autumnalis (syn. S. autumnalis ‘Campo Verde’). Photo: Greenlee & Associates

 

 

Other moor grasses of note

Blue moor grass (Sesleria caerula)

This is a compact grower 8 to 10 inches high and as wide, and has beautiful two-toned blue-green foliage. This is best in cool climates and not as long lived as most moor grasses.

Italian moor grass (Sesleria albicans)

This grass is similar in most respects to autumn moor grass but larger growing. It is 18 to 24 inches high and as wide.

If you are looking for an alternative, easy-to-grow meadow grasses, there is bound to be a moor grass to fill the bill.