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McCreary: Easy-care Australian alternatives

While ornamental grasses slowly recoup after being cut back to the ground, our gardens must withstand empty spaces that their arching foliage fills for most of the year.

Meantime, two evergreen alternatives from Australia -- lomandras and dianellas -- stand as stalwart and appealing candidates not only where grasses have been cut back, but also where flowering plants have died to the ground.

Resembling true grasses but members of different plant families, these perennial species have no real down period or need for pruning, require little water when established and are generally deer proof.

One type bears seed heads similar to grasses, while another develops colorful flowers in spring and summer, often holding into autumn.

Grass-like lomandras recently exploded onto the scene with great reception for their use in nearly any type of soil as well as for indoor container culture. They are sometimes called dwarf mat rushes from their onetime use by aboriginal peoples in woven mats, but lomandras are better known by their botanical name.

These perennials develop flowering stems similar to grasses. Their tiny tan or yellow blossoms bear a light but pleasing fragrance that smells like honey to some, like pineapple to others.

Of the several species currently marketed, L. longifolia is most common, particularly the cultivar, Breeze. Its long, very flat and narrow, bright-green leaves spread in an arching, flowing mound that reaches about 3 feet in diameter and nearly as high in maturity.

Lomandra Seascape develops a more compact weeping shape, with dark bluish-gray leaves. Summer flowers are yellow and highly fragrant.

To maintain clumps as older grasslike leaves die out, use a small but sturdy hand rake and pull out browned foliage. Although it isn't necessary to cut back clumps, they respond quickly if sheared.

Not all neighborhood nurseries stock lomandras yet, but if you ask, they can nearly always get them for you. Last year, along with other grass substitutes, they were hot items at retail Emerisa nursery on Irwin Lane in west Santa Rosa. Emerisa is now open after a brief winter closure.


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