Black Magic in the Garden: Ornamental Rice

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Close Up of Black Madras

A few years ago, I visited friends who had a garden open house or rather an open garden. Tracy and Bill Blevins, owners of Plantsmap, invited friends to visit the garden which was comprised of a variety of types of plants. They set up tables in the driveway to share seeds and cuttings and offer refreshment. It was a great idea, I met new people and plants. Tracy generously shared seed she had collected from her plants and I was able to bring one unusual type of seed to try in my garden.

When I was there, I noticed a lovely water feature in the backyard with a dark ornamental grass. It had an arching shape with cascading tan seed heads. Tracy explained that it was rice, real rice like in rice paddies. This particular one was called Oryza sativa ‘Black Madras’. She gave me a packet of seed, which she had collected from the previous year. The seed looked more like rice kernels in husks, not like polished, white rice from a grocery store.

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Tracy’s Black Madras rice in October 2018 with seed heads

Two years later, and full of time on my hands, I decided to sow the “seeds.” I had read that rice could be grown in containers that did not have drainage holes. I knew I had such containers in the tool shed that had been sitting there because as we all know, containers should have drainage holes. They were not especially pretty–they were not intended to be garden planters—but they were large enough for the rice.

In late May, I planted the seeds directly into the containers and lightly covered with potting mix. I will admit, I tend to be heavy handed with seed but I also had doubts as to whether they would germinate since they had to be at least 3 years old.

These germinated quickly and the plants have done well ever since. Mine are in sun but I can see that they could tolerate some shade, especially afternoon shade in the summer. Now in mid-July, the foliage is about 2 feet tall and a beautiful dark purple. These containers are just the right height and size plus they do not dry out quickly. Rice cannot dry out; the plants always have to be in water.

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Black Madras in large container

Once I saw how well these germinated, I planted a few in a blue ceramic container with no drainage holes because I thought the contrast would work well. Having learned my lesson. I planted fewer seeds. The planting looks good but the container is proportionately too short to the height of the rice. Because the container is smaller, it tends to dry out faster in the heat.

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Black Madras rice in blue container

Ornamental rice is a fun plant to grow in the summer. It is an annual that needs a long summer to produce the seed heads. In the fall, I should see chartreuse green seed heads which should dry to tan. I will harvest the seed to sow again next year. I have not cut the foliage, but I think the foliage would be a lovely addition to a flower bouquet. This plant is ideal for a place that has standing water, or a water, bog, or rain garden. You may even see rice for sale as a pond plant. If I could do it over again, I would not have planted so many seed at once. Instead, I would have saved some for next year. If you buy a packet of seed, chances are there will be 50 or 100 seeds in a packet. Don’t plant all of them, save some for next year. I have now learned they remain viable for a few years. Also, if I had to do it again, I might pick a bright but large container without drainage holes for better contrast with the dark foliage.

Try growing Black Madras ornamental grass next year. Not only is it an easy ornamental annual, it will serve as an ice breaker for your garden open house.

2 responses to “Black Magic in the Garden: Ornamental Rice

  1. Ohhhh, I have large pots with no drainage holes. What a great idea Peg. Thank you!

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