“Lih-rye-oh-pee”, “Lih-ree-ope”, or just plain old “Monkey Grass”. Whatever you call it, many of us have, and appreciate, this ornamental plant in our landscape. A hardy plant that is more closely related to asparagus than grass, it tolerates sun or shade, and a variety of soil conditions. In the Charlotte Metro Area, this ornamental plant can be so hardy in fact, that even when you are trying, it can be downright hard to kill! As a matter of fact, several years ago, one of our customers decided she wanted a “monkey grass” border. She dug up some clumps of Liriope from another area and threw the clumps out along a border of her yard, not even bothering to bury them. Even though they looked as though they had died, sure enough after about a year, the clumps took root in the soil, and she had the “monkey grass” border she was looking for. The number one question that arises with Liriope is, “When is the best time to prune it?”. Or more specifically, “How early in the season is too early to prune it, and how late in the season is too late to prune it?” To answer these questions, we must first establish why we prune it.
Why Prune Liriope?
The reason we prune Liriope is for the most part aesthetic. There are some horticultural reasons to prune, such as removing old dead leaves to avoid disease. But for the most part, pruning it is for looks. As Liriope get to the end of fall and into early winter, its’ leaves tend to look a little spent, not as fresh. Many times the leaves get brown spots or streaks, and generally lose their luster. Liriope grows new leaves every spring, and these new leaves are generally spot free and have their true, natural, vivid color. With that said, this gives us a little insight into when is too late, which we will talk about below. But first, let’s talk about the general time frame for Charlotte, NC.
For the Charlotte area, and really for most of North Carolina, the generally recommended time frame for pruning Liriope is early February. If February is unusually warm and/or the Liriope is next to a south facing wall, make sure to inspect the plant and not cut it too low! We will explain why below.
How Late is too Late?
Given the fact that our primary purpose of pruning is to get rid of the old leaves and showcase the new ones, “too late” can actually be determined by inspecting the plant itself. A calendar date regarding what determines “too late” isn’t as definitive as determining what stage of growth the new Liriope leaf buds are in. So the real question is “Will I be cutting the new leaf buds if I cut my Liriope now?” To answer this question, inspect the plant by using your hand to “part” or “comb” the Liriope leaves aside, to inspect the base of the plant. The base is also called the crown. Here at the crown, look for new leaf buds. Depending on their stage of growth, these buds will resemble anything from small pointed cones, to green, tongue-like growths, and later on, short stubby Liriope leaves. Once the Liriope puts off these new leaf buds, these new leaf buds themselves should not be cut, only the old leaves should be. The reason to avoid cutting the new growth is because Liriope leaves, with their aesthetically pleasing pointed tip, will not regrow the point of that tip once cut. Once Liriope leaves are cut, they will always have a blunt, squared point, that will many times have a small margin of brown color at the cut. Basically, the cut end will always look cut even as the leaf grows longer to reach its full length, and this blunt cut end, of course, doesn’t look very good.
How to Prune
So, what do you do if you inspect the plant and see the new shoots coming up? It’s really pretty simple. If you are using a weed-eater or mower or some other shearing tool, make sure you cut the old leaves high enough to NOT cut the new growth. You can also use a knife or scissor if you want to do this with hand tools. By avoiding cutting the new growth, you will preserve the aesthetics of the new leaves your plant is producing for the coming season. And just a note, never cut all the way down to the crown itself. The new leaves are formed early in the season in the crown, and you will likely cut them even if they aren’t big enough to be easily noticed.
How Early is too Early?
Given the hardiness of Liriope, again we primarily come down to aesthetics. While there is an argument to be made regarding the usefulness of plant leaves in the production of sugar and carbohydrate reserves during the dormant season, for the most part aesthetics is the decisive issue with Liriope. Even though the general consensus is to prune in early February, Liriope can tolerate pruning in January, or even December. In December, the new shoots have not started to grow yet, so cutting them is not a concern, however, some of the winter carbohydrate production could be lost. Even during this time of year, make sure not to cut the crown of the plant because this is where the new shoots are generated. If you do cut Liriope early in the season, analyze how it performs the following summer and this might give you an idea as to whether the early cutting set it back any or not. From an aesthetic standpoint, Liriope can add some rare winter foliage during the winter months, which is something to consider before cutting it down in December. But, if for some reason you have a winter where you really want to see it chopped early, go ahead and go for it.
Now that you have some more insight into Liriope, the general tips to remember are:
- Early February pruning is probably ideal, but not a must.
- Whenever you prune, even if in early February, inspect the plant and make sure not to cut the new leaf buds.
- Never cut into the crown.
Other than that, Liriope is a plant that allows you to just sit back and enjoy a hardy, hard to kill, ground cover that adds pleasant, carefree accents to your landscape.
Keep on growing!