FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ is an elegant grass with rigid glaucous stems and upright leaves. Mature plants are statuesque and crowned with airy panicles of summer spikelets. In late evening, the tiny yellowish spikelets seem to dance above the foliage. Leaves turn gold in autumn and the spikelets mature into purple tinged seed. During winter, leaves and seeds acquire a golden brown color. This handsome grass thrives in prairie type settings or in sunny gardens with moist, average or dry soils.
HABITAT & HARDINESS: The parent species Panicum virgatum ranges through most of the southern Canadian provinces and the contiguous United States. Plants are indigenous to prairies, savannas, glades, rocky bluffs, stream banks, open woods, sand dunes, marsh borders, roadsides, ditches and fields.
The ‘Northwind’ cultivar was discovered by Roy Diblik reportedly growing along an Illinois railroad track. Diblik propagated the plant because he was intrigued by its wider leaves and columnar habit. In 1992, Diblik opened Northwind Perennial Farm and named his selection after the nursery.
Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ is hardy from USDA Zones 4-9.
PLANT DESCRIPTION: Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ is a sturdy upright switch grass cultivar that produces many vertical culms from short rhizomes.
Leaves are a bit wider than some other cultivars with olive green color on top and steely blue-green beneath. The blades are erect rather than arching with tips pointing up toward the sky.
In late summer as the foliage reaches mature height, golden airy flower panicles appear. The panicles consist of many small spikelets displayed on wiry stems.
Spikelets ripen into purple tinged seed. Both seed and foliage transform to a coppery brown in winter.
This cultivar attains a 4-6’ height and 2-3’ spread.
CULTURAL & MAINTENANCE NEEDS: Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ prospers in sunny sites with average to moist soil. Plants tolerate clay, alkalinity, drought, moderate salinity and seasonal flooding.
This is a sturdy almost “unfloppable” grass. Plants have rigid stems anchored by an extensive root system. The stems’ tensile strength allows them to maintain an erect form while neighboring grasses flounder.
The only maintenance needed is to cut or burn this grass to the ground in late winter.
LANDSCAPE USES: The strict stylized habit of Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ lends itself well to Mass Plantings along Roadways and in large urban landscapes. This grass is an appealing Accent or Grouping for Perennial Borders or urban Meadows. Plants provide Erosion Control, Fall Color, Winter Interest, Showy Blooms and Attractive Seedheads and are appropriate for Cottage Gardens, Low Maintenance Plantings, Rain Gardens and Water Wise Landscapes.
COMPANION & UNDERSTUDY PLANTS: Try pairing Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ with Aster laevis ‘Bluebird’, Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite’, Echinacea purpurea, Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida, Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’ or Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation’.
If a substitute is needed, Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ has similar cultural needs and habit. ‘Heavy Metal’ is more slender and a bit shorter, however.
TRIVIA: ‘Northwind’ was recognized by the Perennial Plant Association as Perennial Plant of the Year for 2014. In the 25 years that this award has been given, ‘Northwind’ is only the third grass to earn this honor.
The Chicago Botanic Garden conducted an ornamental grass trial that evaluated 17 switch grass cultivars. ‘Northwind’ was the only one to achieve an “excellent” four star rating.