Plant of the Week
Latin: Pennisetum glaucum
Ornamental plants come in many forms so it should not be surprising when field crops jump the fence and end up in a list of plants grown for decoration. One of the latest of these is ornamental millet. Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) is one of the world's oldest cultivated grains and one of its newest ornamentals.
Pearl millet is an annual grass that grows from 2 to 5 feet tall with 2-foot-long, 1.5-inch wide leaves. Millet tillers freely and produces a number of new stems from the base of the plant.
Millet flowers appear at the ends of the stems in early summer as foot-long bottlebrush-like spikes. Ornamental forms have purple to maroon flowers whereas most pearl millet cultivars have white or cream colored inflorescences.
Millet is a principle food grain in much or Africa, India and, before it was replaced by rice, in Asia. It is an ancient crop being grown since at least 5000 BC. Its principle way of consumption is as a thick porridge but it is also fermented to make beer. It was introduced into the United States after the Civil War but never became common for human consumption but is widely used in drier areas for fodder production as animal feed. Bird feeders know pearl millet as the small round white seed in birdseed mixes.
"Jade Princess" is a 2-foot tall, green leafed millet with vivid purple spikes. Ball Seed Company of Chicago introduced it in 2008. By cutting off the grain heads as seeds begin to form plants can be kept in bloom all season long. It is an excellent plant for massing or to create bold vertical specimens amongst lower growing plantings.
In 2003 "Purple Majesty" millet was awarded a gold medal by All America Selections. It grows stiffly upright to 5 feet tall and makes a strong statement in the border with its vivid dark purple foliage and spikes. It has a more corn-like habit of growth whereas 'Jade Princess' is more fountain-like.
The ornamental millets are heavy feeders needing an abundant supply of nutrition and water to produce maximum results. They should be grown in full sun in a good loamy soil. They can be grown in large containers (24 inches in diameter) but frequent attention to watering and fertilization is required to achieve good results.
The spindly growth sometimes seen with 'Purple Majesty' plantings is due to failure to provide for the plants the water and fertilizer they require. Both of the ornamental millets are hybrids so seeds saved from the plants will not come back true to type.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - August 14, 2009
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.