Stillwater News Press


May 3, 2014

In the Garden 05-04-14

Monkey grass by other names

L-M-N-O; cryptic, it stands for Liriope-Monkey grass-Not-Ophiopogon and, it probably means nothing to anyone but me at the moment, but hopefully that will change by the time you finish this column.

Liriope, (pronounced with a short i, followed by three long vowels), is a genus of grass like plants from China and Japan. In Northern California we planted varieties like ‘Big Blue’ and variegated ‘Silvery Sunproof’ in partial shade areas. Nurseries kept a few gallons on hand, but I would not say it was a big seller.

Moving to Oklahoma, I quickly became familiar with “monkey grass” a favorite with landscapers and new home construction. I recognized it as a Liriope but it certainly was not what we planted in California and (in my opinion) it was ugly! The difference of course was the species. L. muscari has tall arching leaves (15”-20”) with summer flowers that resemble Muscari — the bulb known as grape hyacinth. L. spicata is shorter (up to 8”) and the foliage (similar to blades of grass) almost lies flat as it matures. Both are Liriope but the growth habits are very different.

Known by another common name, Lily turf, L. muscari grows as a clump; it does increase its spread but slowly and therefore is a reasonable choice for formal borders. (Keep in mind, self-seeding may take this species out of your allotted space.) Drastically different, L. spicata is very aggressive/invasive for it not only lies down with its ripe seed; it spreads by underground stems with the vigor of Bermuda grass. Although it stays green through the winter, it is not pretty and requires mowing before the new growth starts to look halfway presentable throughout the summer. (As the author of this column I get the privilege of sharing my likes and dislikes; monkey grass lovers please take no offense.)

When purchasing Monkey grass, be aware that nurseries sell both species by that common name. If you have a specific landscape application in mind, be certain you are purchasing the species you desire. Nurseries also sell Ophiopogon as monkey grass. Many know this genus as Mondo grass and while I love the dwarf varieties that grow a mere 2-4” tall, O. japonicus grows 8-12” and has purplish flowers just like Liriope. Nursery professionals may be the only ones who recognize the differences between L. muscari and O. japonicus. If you desire the slow spreading border-like habit with a shorter, narrower leaf, Ophiopogon may be just the plant. But then that would be O-M-N-L….oh well.

LeeAnn Barton has worked with nurseries for more than 20 years. She digs in the dirt in Stillwater. Direct questions to her by emailing

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