Ophiopogon chingii - NOT! (actually O. umbraticola)

Submitted by Mark McD on

I was going to put this under "Woodlanders", but since this plant is so ubiquitously misidentified and sold under the completely wrong name, I thought I'd put it under the Plant Identification area.

So, what we have here is a delightful, small, clumping non-rhizomatous non-spreading "Mondo Grass"... not really a grass at all, but a member of the Ruscaceae, formerly classified as Liliaceae.  I knew these as small liliaceous groundcovers from Japan and China, very popular in public plantings in more temperate regions of the US, down South and in California and elsewhere in the west coast.  Some are hardy here in New England, but they are not so popular or prevalent.

A small treasure has recently become popular, found in dozens of nurseries available on the web, the plant offered as O.  chingii, from China.  The problem is, if you check the botanical description of O. chingii in the online Flora of China, it is a complete mismatch for the plant being sold... O. chingii is a much larger and taller broad-leaf species.  To try and thwart a misnomer so entrenched  and well established in commerce is a daunting task, but we can all help to dispel the unfortunate error.  I believe the plant in question, is actually Ophiopogon umbraticola.

I show some photos... the first couple from last fall, where I was surprised to find for the first time, some remarkable shiny blue berries on this plant, almost worth growing for that feature alone.  The plant is in flower now (mid July), with tiny sprays of whitish-lavender flowers, the whole affair just a few inches tall.  Go and seek out Ophiopogon "chingii" from nurseries, but re-lable them to O. umbraticola, and spread the gospel.

Pertinent links to the Flora of China on Ophiopogon showing that the ID of O. chingii is wrong:

I have also featured his plant on another NARGS thread Re: Evergreen plants after a New England winter


Submitted by Hoy on Sun, 07/11/2010 - 02:21

I do grow a couple of Ophiopogon but not this species however. Here they flower when I am away in summer. They do not set much berries but when they do the berries are blue like yours.
Your plant seems to be an interesting species with narrower leaves than mine.
I have no pics at the moment.

Submitted by Mark McD on Sun, 07/11/2010 - 05:52

Trond, this species (Ophiopogon umbraticola) has among its synonyms, Ophiopogon japonicus var. umbraticola, and you are correct, the blue berries are much like the berries produced on O. japonicus.

Carlo, good point regarding their tolerance for dryness, noteworthy because in nature their habitat is described as "Forests, scrub, cliffs, streamsides, moist and shady places".  Mine is planted in very dry shade, where many other plants have suffered, particularly during our current long spell of heat and drought, this one doesn't blink an eye and always looks good.

Submitted by Mark McD on Sat, 08/20/2011 - 17:29

This darned plants looks just about the same every year, all year long including winter. It doesn't seem to grow or expand, just stays as a nice little bird's nest of dark green foliage, perpetually happy with its current size and disposition.  Although this year it flowered better than normal, as shown in this photo taken on July 20, 2011.  It's a vexing plant to photograph, the palest lavender flowers in shade trick the camera into overcompensating the exposure and invariably give terrible results, although this one is the closest I've gotten to being acceptable.

I've not had good luck with sowing seed. In several years just one seedling appeared last fall, but I suspect it was not mature enough to survive the winter as it did not reappear.  Last autumn I sowed seed again, planting the whole berries intact, but again no germination in spring.  I haven't bothered looking at the flats in a while, and lo and behold when I checked today (Aug.20th), there were a half dozen healthy seedlings.  They must have germinated in July sometime!

Submitted by Hoy on Sun, 08/21/2011 - 02:12

What a surprise! My surprises are of the opposite kind: Seedlings have emerged and I tend them as nice as I can and suddenly they disappear - probably the result of adventurous slugs.
How come you don't get weeeds in your seedtrays? I always get seedlings of birches and willowherbs as they germinate at once.

Submitted by Mark McD on Sun, 08/21/2011 - 05:46

Hoy wrote:

How come you don't get weeeds in your seedtrays? I always get seedlings of birches and willowherbs as they germinate at once.

Trond, I do get weeds in my seed flats; in fact, weeding them is what led me to discover the recently germinated Ophiopogon seedlings.  The weeds that most often appear are American Elm seedlings (I'm not sure why the American Elm has not taken over America... every single flat flake-like seed germinates!), dandelions, grasses, weedy oxalis, clover, and seedlings from neighboring plants; Penstemon digitalis and Hypericum frondosum.

Submitted by Mark McD on Sun, 08/21/2011 - 05:59

RickR wrote:

Do surmise that planting whole berries was the trick?

(Like the natural dividers in the box, too.)

Not sure... I should have been more scientific about it, sowing half the seed cleaned and the other half as whole berries.  In the past, I have simply scratched in fallen berries around the mother plant, and in the period of 5-6 years, only the single seedling appeared that I mentioned previously.  Maybe the seed being sown in a flat, and kept consistently moist as compared to the dry spot where the plant resides, is what made the difference?  This year with ample rainfall, the plant is setting lots & lots of berries, so I will try the dual method of sowing and see what happens.

I started using low & wide rectangular peat flats instead of smaller plaster pots.  For unattended (down right neglectful) seed germination and seedling growing, I have much better results in these types of flats because the porous water-transmitting peat when in contact with the ground, stays more evenly moist. The flats do decompose, particularly on the bottom where they stay more moist, but typically I get a couple years out of them, then I can just crumble them up and mix them in with soil :D

The flats can be sort of big for small quantities of seed, so I double up and sow other varieties and separate them with twigs from a Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum)... a tree that sheds LOTS of twigs.

Submitted by Mark McD on Sat, 10/15/2011 - 12:43

I have been watching this years crop of "berries" and they're just starting to color up.  This year it is my intent to do an experiment, sow half the seed uncleaned (whole "berry"), the other half with the pulp removed, to see how it affects germination.  I have planted out the seedlings that germinated this summer (about 8 seedlings) so I can hopefully increase my stock of this tight-clump forming species that never seems to increase vegetatively.  The berries are a few days to a week away from full azure blue coloration.

Submitted by Mark McD on Mon, 10/24/2011 - 18:27

Experiment in progress; I harvested the berries on Ophiopogon umbraticola, half were sown as whole berries, the other half are being soaked for a few days so that they can soften and the pulp removed from the seed, and then to be sown. 

A parting view, just before harvesting the berries... they pluck off at the slightest touch, and a few had already started to wither and drop off.  Oooh, such pretty seeds/berries.

Sowing the whole berries in good compost, then covered with a thin layer of soil and a layer of decomposed bark mulch, protected with wire mesh from digging chipmunks and squirrels.

The other half of the berries being soak.  On their second day of soaking, they're still firm and buoyant, maybe I should add a few drops of liquid dish soap.

Submitted by Mark McD on Mon, 10/24/2011 - 19:01

RickR wrote:

Truly, a gem!

About how many seeds are there in a berry?

I don't know how many yet, I've never done the seed soak thing with this plant.  I'll report back :)

Submitted by Mark McD on Sat, 11/05/2011 - 15:40

As promised I'm reporting back.  The berry-like seeds were soaked for a week but seemed resistant to softening.  Then a freak Halloween snowstorm arrived and we lost power for 5 days, and I forgot about the soaking seed (had more important things to worry about).  Today I remembered about the soaking seed, the water was a bit putrid, but I rinsed and finished peeling off the skins. If what I'm seeing is indeed the seed, they're just hard white pearls, like tiny pearl onions, with nothing inside when held up to the light.  But the experiment preparation is done, the seed was sown.  We'll see what happens in 2012. :)

Submitted by Mark McD on Fri, 01/20/2012 - 18:11

Afloden wrote:


That is what the Ophiopogon seed is like! We collected about 12 accessions in Vietnam and all but one keys to x intermedia (I doubt it, look at the number of synonyms and the distribution).

But, I agree that the plant in cultivation as chingii is umbraticola. I keyed these out 1.5 years ago, when I collected and sowed a lot of seed. I have a few plants to show now. Not sure how they got to chingii.


Glad to gain your concensus on the ID.  I had contacted Plant Delights Nursery with my belief that O. "chingii" of Hort was actually O. umbraticola, it was a fascinating process working with them; their vetting process is painstakingly thorough, I wish more nurseries were so interested and diligent in their plant identifications as PDN is. As their plants had finished flowering during our multi-week review process, I took flowering stems, tapped them to paper with a 1 mm grid that I drew up, and scanned the floral details into high-resolution images for close-hand examination. They use a detailed spreadsheet comparing the likely candidates from a field of +60 species of Ophiopogon, with columns for each and every reported plant characteristic, grading the subject plant ID against each. impressive!  Ultimately they agreed it comes closest to O. umbraticola.

Good to know about Ophiopogon seed, I more or less figured it out once I peeled the skin off ;)

Submitted by Mark McD on Sat, 06/30/2012 - 13:20

Following up on my seed experiment, sowing seed of O. umbraticola, about 30 seeds sown as whole "berries" and an equal quantity soaked and the skin removed before sowing, the first seedlings just appeared (this is most definitely a summer germinator); so far 3 seedlings from the skin-removed side, 6 seedlings on the whole-berry side.  But, it is probably a bit early for a count, I will report back as potentially more germination occurs.       

Submitted by Mark McD on Sat, 07/28/2012 - 19:18

The jury is in, regarding my little experiment, it definitely seems better to sow whole berries of O. umbraticola (possibly true for other Ophiopogon species as well) rather than soaking and de-skinning them.  I don't think I'll see much more germination, only 3 seedlings on the cleaned seed side, and 8 seedlings on the"whole berry" side.  I'm happy to have 11 more young plants of this ultra-slow-growing Ophiopogon that doesn't increase vegetatively.

Submitted by Mark McD on Sat, 07/28/2012 - 19:41

RickR wrote:

It seems the whole berry seedlings are a bit more vigorous, or emerged earlier, too?

Both types (cleaned seed vs. whole berry) emerged the same day, then a few more of the whole berry seed germinated.  Last year's seedlings are growing well enough, in spite of our hot and very dry summer so far.