How to Plant & Grow Zebra Rush (Scirpus zebrinus)


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zebra rush scirpus zebrinus growing along a pond edge
Zebra rush has white and green banded stems, which fade to complete green after a couple of years. Photo by Evelyn Simak, CC BY-SA 2.0

Zebra rush, also known as the banded bulrush, is a very popular pond plant due to its attractive, striped stems and ability to adeptly filter water. Zebra rush gets its unusual name from its appearance – it is decorated with horizontal white bands every few inches, resembling porcupine quills. These bands fade as the summer goes on, whereupon it more closely resembles its close relative the softstem bulrush. The tall green foliage adds colour and excitement to your water garden, and at the same time, is a hardy and easy plant to grow.

Its common name is somewhat confusing, however – zebra rush is not actually a rush, but is instead a sedge grass belonging to Cyperaceae, the sedge family. Even more specifically within the sedge family, it’s a bulrush. The key to differentiating the two families is in their shape; there’s an adage popular with budding botanists that goes, “rushes are round and sedges have edges.” This is in reference to the completely circular stems of true rushes, and the sharp, defined edges of sedge stems. Bulrushes, specifically, have sharply angled, triangular stems.

Scirpus zebrinus is actually a cultivated subspecies of the naturally occurring species known as Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani (sheen-oh-pleck-tus tab-err-nay-mont-ayn-ee-i – that one took us about 2 weeks in the field to properly identify and pronounce!), or softstem bulrush. While softstem bulrush is found natively in wetlands and lakes throughout North America, zebra rush was bred by humans and, while it can be found in some natural environments as it’s escaping cultivation, is primarily found in ornamental ponds and water gardens.

Facts, Benefits & Uses of Zebra Rush

flower spikelet of zebra rush scirpus zebrinus
The unique, brown spikelet flowers and seedheads of zebra rush are fed on readily by a variety of birds and small mammals. Photo by I, KENPEI, CC BY-SA 3.0

Scirpus species are found on every continent apart from Africa and Antarctica. As a whole, members of the Scirpus genus provide a huge array of ecosystem benefits and are essential for the functioning of healthy ecosystems. They prevent soil erosion, provide habitats for other wildlife, and filter pollutants out of the water, with zebra rush being no exception to this. In fact, one study found that bulrushes were able to break down and remove nearly 40% more diesel fuel from a polluted wetland than the control environment without bulrushes present.

Banded bulrush in particular is an excellent choice for naturalising your pond margins and plays an important role in attracting wildlife (if you’re looking to create a wildlife-friendly pond, keep this plant in mind!). Like other sedges, zebra rush doesn’t flower as you might typically think of it, but instead produces clusters of brown spikelets at the tips of each stem during the summer months. These spikelets contain seeds that are fed on readily by a variety of birds and small mammals, such as voles and muskrats.

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Zebra Rush Fact Sheet:
PLANT TYPE
Herbaceous Aquatic Perennial
HARDINESS ZONES
USDA 4 – 9
LIGHT REQUIREMENTS
Full sun to partial shade
BLOOM COLOR
Brown
BLOOM PERIOD
June – September (Summer)
MAXIMUM GROWTH
Height up to 2.4 meter (8 ft)
PLANTING DEPTH
10-15 cm (4-6 in.) of water and sediment
WATER QUALITY
pH 5.6 – 7.0

Zebra Rush Growth, Hardiness & Climate

how to grow zebra rush in ponds
Zebra rush can grow up to 8 feet tall, but closer to 4 feet is more common. Photo by I, KENPEI, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The growth rate of banded bulrush is moderate to fast. In locations without proper winters, some gardeners report that they can grow an impressive 500cm (5 meters!) in a single season, although they typically take 3 to 5 years to reach full height and a height of closer to 4 feet is more usual, with 8 feet typically being the max. They spread via rhizomes, with a single plant giving rise to dozens of others and each clump achieving a diameter of around 4 feet.

Zebra rush will survive for many years if grown in hardiness zones 4 to 9, but will thrive and grow at their best when planted at the higher end of this range as winters do slow them down a bit. Zebra rush is tolerant to cooler temperatures, able to survive frost and snow so long as their roots don’t freeze, and will grow successfully in full or at least partial sunlight with ample access to water.


How to Plant Zebra Rush In Ponds

young zebra rush growing in a pond
Young zebra rush plants can be planted in up to 6 inches of water, with roots buried in rich substrate. Photo by Photo by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0

Zebra rush can be grown in containers, fabric planters, or via being planted directly in sediment. Make sure to buy a larger container to allow for its fast growth rate. Use heavy, rich loam soil and place the container in your pond with 10-15cm of water over the roots. Find a spot that is in full sun to partial shade. You can use fertiliser tabs to help with its initial growth, though we don’t generally recommend this as the fertilizer will inevitably wind up in your water and could alter the water quality of your pond or water garden.


How to Care For Zebra Rush

Zebra rush doesn’t require a lot of maintenance and is mainly a self-sustaining marginal plant. As long as it has enough water and nutrients, it will continue to grow well on its own. Make sure you plant zebra rush marginally, in the shallows or the wet edge of your pond, as this will ensure that all of its needs are met.

It would benefit the plants to have fish in the pond, as fish generate nutrients via waste that banded rush will readily utilize. As always, be sure to clean any trimmed or dropped foliage from your pond to encourage healthy water quality. You can cut off any excess growth during the winter months while the plants are dormant – this will reduce stress to them, and result in improved spring growth.


How to Winter Zebra Rush

As with other bulrushes, zebra rush is quite hardy and doesn’t require much care to prep it for winter. You can even leave them as they are, if you wish! If you’d like to stimulate earlier spring growth, you can cut any browning foliage back to about 4cm above the water surface in the autumn and then move the pots further into the water to make sure all of the roots are covered, as this will keep them warmer and prevent them from totally freezing. Zebra rush has hollow stems, so make sure you don’t cut any stems back below the water level or the plants may drown.


Is Zebra Rush Toxic, Poisonous or Invasive?

As a species bred and cultivated by humans, zebra rush does not technically have a native range – it’s sold primarily as a garden plant. However, its very close relative, softstem bulrush, is native throughout Canada, the US, and portions of Mexico. Additionally, zebra rush is not an aggressive species and is not known to spread out of control or take over natural species.

Zebra rush is not known to be toxic, and in fact many fish may enjoy nibbling the tender roots while some birds and mammals enjoy the small flowers and seeds.


Is Zebra Rush Edible? Will Fish Eat it?

Zebra rush is technically edible, though by human standards is not particularly palatable. Your fish are unlikely to show much interest in it, but more curious or peckish fish, such as koi, might try nibbling the tender roots if the plants are within their reach. If you’re concerned about your fish eating banded rush, you can simply plant it on a shallow shelf where your fish can’t reach it.


Where to Buy Zebra Rush & Seeds? (UK & US)

Zebra rush and similar marginal pond plants can be purchased from a range of plant nurseries either in person or online. If you do not have a nursery near you, you can also purchase them from online retailers. This is a fairly popular garden pond plant, and should be readily available from most plant and pond retailers, but can be special ordered if needed.

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