Autumn Carex (and a Juncus)

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Carex ‘Toffee Twist’ tops an autumn combination (right)

To get a better sense of the bronze Sedges like Carex ‘Toffee Twist’ and ‘Red Rooster’, let’s take a look at them compared to a Rush, Juncus ‘Blue Arrows’. These grasses like the sun, handle water fluctuations, and perform well in a wide variety of soil types—in that sense, they are the same. They can work indoors or outdoors, in containers or in landscapes. We offer them in the same 4.5-inch and one-gallon sizes. All three do the same job, but they show up to work with their own distinct habits.

Visually they are very different. ‘Blue Arrows’ is blue while the others are coppery; it is straight while the Carex are tousled. Once we see their contrasts in action, we can appreciate the uniqueness their individual quirks bring to our designs. Since they anchor so much of our autumn work we thought we’d explore their personalities.

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Densely packed strands of the Rush ‘Blue Arrows’ 


‘Blue Arrows’ always combs its hair in the morning. These grass blades are stiff as bristles so the plant has an upright nature with a tight radial pattern. Tiny Cyperus-like blooms do appear, but the stiff bristle look is the significant feature. Although it’s officially considered green, the color is actually more of a deep blue-green.

We like ‘Blue Arrows’ as a component in a number of autumn, Halloween and Christmas decorations where its straight-up nature provides eye-catching contrast with the other greenery. As a cool weather grass it handles cold drafts from the door and tolerates irregular watering. This is a genuinely tough plant equipped with all the necessary features to succeed in the rough world of combinations.

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‘Toffee Twist’ brings the spirit of autumn to containers


By comparison, ‘Toffee Twist’s’ coppery-orange blades have a severe case of bed head. This Carex is especially suitable for containers because the plant grows well in the narrow confines of window boxes and small pots. It has a slender waist and enough height to rise up behind the flowers lining the front, plus it bulks up in partial sun—a useful feature for window boxes that hug the house or bowls that hang out under tree limbs.

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For window boxes that hug the house ‘Toffee Twist’ bulks up in partial sun

‘Toffee Twist’ symbolizes the casual autumn look, where informal and relaxed are the rules to follow. It grows a bit smaller than ‘Blue Arrows’, with wispy blades arching out in a fan. Planted as a patio specimen or placed inside by the coffee table, ‘Toffee Twist’ starts to resemble the hairline of Calvin, Hobbes’ partner in the classic comic.

Of the three grasses we’re discussing, this is the smallest. ‘Toffee Twist’ will never grow as large as Pennisetum ‘Fireworks’, although it can outpace Fiber Optic Grass.

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‘Red Rooster’ takes the casual grass style up a notch


If you like the ‘Toffee Twist’ look but not quite as tousled, we recommend Carex ‘Red Rooster’. It has the same casual grass style but with a beefier crown and a taller habit that lends itself toward bigger work. These coppery leaves have more red in them than orange, though we get the same finely textured blades and upright tufts. ‘Red Rooster’ does comb its hair from time to time, for a hairstyle that’s more Beach Boys than Van Halen.

It grows about two feet high and creates a habit where the leaves start to arch and curl at the tips. Imagine a large upside-down straw broom—that is the essence of ‘Red Rooster’. 

Logical companions are dark Millet and Pennisetum—even the dark greens of Boxwood and Arborvitae would work. When planted in a series, ‘Red Rooster’ creates sweeps of motion that become more visible if it’s used against dark backgrounds to emphasize the color.

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Create sweeps of motion using ‘Red Rooster’ in front of a dark background


All three cultivars have decades of experience in the industry. They are popular in both containers and landscape applications, but we’ve noticed a few trends over the years. First, as a rule, growing these grasses in containers results in a shorter plant. This is typical across a broad range of plant material because the tighter space found in a pot will naturally root-prune the plant to a smaller size. There is also some evidence that plants, when they touch their companions, will slow their growth to fit the space they find.

In the landscape, all three cultivars grow taller and bushier, especially if they are given a light feed and regular water. You might be surprised by the reason: most fertilizers are salts of some sort, and grasses tend to be stunted if they find an excess of salt in their soil. Water keeps the saltiness in check.

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Grasses grown in pots naturally root-prune to a smaller size


‘Blue Arrows’ is very hardy in the Cincinnati area, down to Zone 4. It takes a couple of years to mature but the plant will grow to about three feet tall in a slender 12-inch column. This grass is especially good where the soil is boggy, so plantings near ponds or water catchments are just fine.

‘Red Rooster’ is also hardy, down to Zone 6. Folks to the north of Cincinnati might want to consider putting down some soil protection against possible Alberta clippers during the winter. It grows about 30 to 36 inches tall in a slender column as well, and is also good in wet soils.

‘Toffee Twist’ isn’t hardy around here, but we only use this variety for combinations and component work. It happens to be a tender perennial, so it can work as an indoor/outdoor houseplant in a nice pot for garden centers that specialize in that market.

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‘Blue Arrows’ and ‘Red Rooster’ underneath Pennisetum ‘Vertigo’