Hakonechloa is one of those plants that just catches your eye. I know because it is the plant I’m most frequently asked to identify in my garden whenever I post photos that include it. It’s also a plant I would hate to be without.
Hakonechloa (aka Japanese forest grass) has the distinction of being one of the few grasses that thrives in shade and that alone makes it a very useful plant. It’s also relatively low growing, so it does well at the front of the border or in large, flowing masses.
I find that it also fits in well with a variety of garden styles. Certainly it is well suited to Japanese-inspired gardens, but it works equally well in formal gardens (it looks great when planted with boxwood, which provides an excellent texture contrast), natural-style gardens where it’s flowing habit is particularly appreciated and even cottage gardens.
There are several cultivars. I was first introduced to ‘Aureola’, which is mostly yellow with a green stripe down the center of the leaves, and learned quickly that it does much better in shade. I had three growing in the same garden in full shade, part shade and not-quite-full sun and the healthiest was the full shade one. The one in a lot of sun ultimately failed after several years of getting smaller each year, although this may have been because of soil dryness rather than exposure. Hakonechloa likes a rich, moist soil where it can get it.
‘All Gold’ is my favorite of the cultivars I’ve tried. It is true to its name all yellow, although it tends more toward chartreuse in shadier conditions. I find that it can handle part sun, although the foliage can get quite washed out by the middle of summer if it’s in too much sun. It is lower growing than ‘Aureola’, about a foot tall or so, but fills in quickly. Several years ago I bought a dozen or so 3-inch liners, which filled in within three years and kept growing. I divided them in half for a new garden by the garage and three years later those divisions could use dividing. I moved the original plants to the circle garden last year.
I also grow a cultivar called ‘Stripe it Rich’ which I acquired through a plant co-op and have never seen for sale since. It has far more stripes than ‘Aureola’ and is the largest of the three, growing to about 30 inches tall. I grow this one successfully in an east exposure, although I think it would appreciate a bit more shade than it is getting.
I’ve not grown the species Hakonechloa macra … yet. It’s a straight green but has the great flowing texture that is perhaps the plant’s best feature. In fact with all the showy cultivars, I hadn’t really given it much thought. But I’ve heard wonderful things about it, and British garden designer Tom Stuart Smith has created amazing gardens that feature it, which is enough to make me seek it out.
Like many grasses, it looks great left standing throughout winter, although I do give it a hack back as soon as it’s safe to get in the garden in spring. It is easily divided, but it’s best to do that when new growth is just peeking up. There is no other maintenance required.
The zone range varies depending on the cultivar, but most grow in zones 5 to 9. A few of the newer cultivars including a dramatic red-leafed one called ‘Beni Kaze’ seem to be more comfortable in zone 6 and up even if their tags say zone 5.
I think all of the Hakonechloas look best planted in large groups, the bigger the better, although they can also serve as an up-front focal point and foil for other textures in the garden if planted singly in a place of prominence.
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