Monkey See, Monkey Do


Tucked away in the Pacific Northwest lies a haven for nature lovers complete with an undisturbed Northwest forest and sweeping views of Puget Sound. Once a private piece of property, home to the Bloedel Family, the Bloedel Reserve is now open to the public. Situated on Bainbridge Island, Washington, reservations are required to tour the 84 acres of second growth forest and numerous specialty gardens. Today the nearly 150 acres are operated by The Arbor Fund and the reserve is reached by either the Seattle-Winslow Ferry from Seattle or by the Olympic Peninsula via the Agate Pass Bridge. Upon entering the gatehouse of the reserve, you are instantly enamored by the French architecture and formal European stylistic landscaping of this palatial estate. Your own staggered tour runs independent of others, every 10-15 minutes, so as to experience the reserves natural wonders for yourself. Such botanical wonders include, towering English Elms, monstrous specimens of  Katsura tree, Persian Parrotia, Empress tree and Copper Beech to name a few. Attractions include a bird refuge, reflection garden, moss garden, waterfall outlook, and natural forest showcasing the timber tree Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas Fir). These Douglas Firs have been left to their own devices, and are maturing to their fullest potential. Trees well over 100 feet have at their feet a meandering foot path with a gorgeous wooden bridge crossing a giant ravine. With all these towering specimens around you, what really stuck me was a diminutive plant welcoming me into the Japanese garden. A monosweep of Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ (Black Mondo Grass).

Ophiopogon (Mondo or Monkey grass) has a petite stature, but when used in mass plantings or monosweeps can easily enhance gargantuan counterparts. However, the plants people of the Bloedel Reserve used Black Mondo Grass on either side of a walkway welcoming me through an Asian-type bower. Monkey grass is a sod-forming, herbaceous perennial plant. Derived from Greek ophis, “snake”, and pogon, “beard”, there is some conjecture as to whether this refers to the leaves or its flower spike. Mondo’s epithet refers to Japan’s language of ryu-no-hige (dragon’s beard) or ja-no-hige (snake’s beard). Chinese medicine uses mai men dong, Ophiopogon japonicus tuber, as an herb to help yin deficiency. Said to suppress dry coughs and constipation, the Chinese believe in its curative powers.

Often confused with Liriope muscari (Lilyturf), the leaves of mondo grass are narrower with blue fruits as compared to the black fruits of Liriope. Mondo grass is primarily used as a groundcover or border foreground plant, however it looks quite attractive in planters, around ponds or between stone foot paths. Suitable to plant under larger trees, monkey grass is able to survive amongst other plants with more competitive root structures. Once established this small wonder requires little or no attention and is free of most insect and disease problems. Filtered sunlight to full shade help drive the marketability of this plant in our garden center as customers are tired of the pedestrian solutions of ajuga and pachysandra. You can propagate this plant by dividing large clumps and consider shearing back the older spent leaves in early spring before the new growth comes out. Tolerant to medium wet conditions, mondo grass grows to about a foot tall depending on cultivar. Hardy from zones 6-11, monkey grass even flowers in the summer.

There are several cultivars to impress and add variety to your gardens. Ophiopogon japonicus ‘Nanus’, as you might expect, is a lush, dark green variety with half the height of the species only reaching 4-6 inches. Ophiopogon ‘Kyoto Dwarf’ is almost microscopic. Appreciating the diminutive structure of this plant reaching only 1-2 inches tall and understanding the potential of it as a bonsai understory… it’s only hardy to zone 7. So enjoy it South Jersey and further south. Finally, my favorite is Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’. Sometimes referred to as ‘Ebony Knight or ‘Black Dragon’, I love it as Black Mondo Grass. Picture a shady location in your garden and tucked away in the foreground is a flat, black grass backed by a layer of Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, (Variegated Hakone Grass), a yellow foliaged grass with streaks of green lines.

Hopefully you have been inspired to visit the Bloedel Reserve, “a place where one is reminded of the fundamental bond that exists between man and nature” (Prentice Bloedel). A place where I was inspired to plant monkey grass once I had seen it done so well. Lastly, Prentice Bloedel’s truism sums up best man and nature. “Nature can do without man, but man cannot do without nature”.