Ornamental plants come in many forms, so it shouldn’t be surprising when field crops jump the fence and end up in a list of garden plants grown for decoration. One of these great landscape fillers is pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) – one of the world’s oldest cultivated grains and one of its newest ornamentals for home gardeners.

Pennisetum glaucum ‘Jade Princess’

Jade Princess ornamental millet is a bold plant providing contrast and substance to the annual border. You can keep it blooming by removing the mature seed heads as the seeds begin to fill in.

Photo Credit: Gerald Klingaman

Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Majesty’

Purple Majesty is an ornamental millet with a corn-like character.

Photo Credit: James H. Schutte

Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Baron’

‘Purple Baron’ is a wonderful new cultivar with beautiful purple leaves and showy seed heads.

Photo Credit: Maureen Gilmer

Pearl millet is an annual grass that grows from 2-5 feet tall with 2-foot-long, 1½-inch-wide leaves. Millet sprouts freely and produces a number of new stems from the base of the plant. Its 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 of Africa, India and, before it was replaced by rice, in Asia. It’s an ancient crop, grown since at least 5000 BC. Its principle method of consumption is as a thick porridge, but it’s also fermented to make beer. Millet was introduced into the US after the Civil War, but it never became common for human consumption. Today it’s widely used in drier areas of North America for fodder production as animal feed. Birds and bird feeders know pearl millet as the small, round, white seed found in birdseed mixes.

‘Jade Princess’ is a 2-foot-tall, green-leafed millet with vivid purple spikes. The Ball Horticultural Co. of West Chicago, IL, introduced it to home gardeners in 2008. By cutting off the grain heads as seeds begin to form, plants can be kept in bloom all season long. It’s an excellent plant for massing or to create bold vertical specimens among lower-growing plantings.

In 2003, ‘Purple Majesty’ was awarded a gold medal by All America Selections®. This attractive ornamental 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 growth habit than ‘Jade Princess’, which is more fountain-like.

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 fertilizing is required to achieve good growing 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. Because both of these ornamental millets are hybrids, seeds saved from the plants won’t come back true to type.

There are breeding efforts in the works to develop more ornamental millet cultivars for use in home gardens. Two recent introductions are ‘Purple Baron’ and ‘Jester’. No doubt there will be even more in the coming years. No matter which variety you pick, ornamental millet will not disappoint. Its beautiful foliage and flowers, easy propagation and low-maintenance makes this ornamental grass a winner in the landscape.