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Pennisetum g. 'Purple Majesty'

Pennisetum glaucum, which is commonly called cattail or bullrush millet, and usually used for forage or grain, has, thanks to a serendipitous discovery in a University of Nebraska-Lincoln breeding program secured an impressive All America Selections award in the USA and an impressive impact on new plant sales across the world.

It was also walking out of the sales areas at the 2004 Hampton Court Flower Show in England when it was displayed for sale for the first time in large numbers.

"Pennisetum ‘Purple Majesty’ is an unusually attractive hybrid of Pearl Millet”, said David Andrews, NU Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Emeritus Professor of Plant Breeding). Andrews developed this hybrid together with John Rajewski, research manager in the agronomy and horticulture department.

‘Purple Majesty’ has showy purple leaves with a red midrib, or stripe, down the center of the leaves. Its long, narrow seedhead has attractive bristles good for floral arrangements and at maturity, this annual plant is 4 to 5 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet in diameter. It’s suited to climates from southern Canada to the southern United States ... but should be counted as a summer annual in the UK or Europe.

‘Purple Majesty’ was featured as an AAS All-American Selection and Gold Medal winner for 2003 for its exceptional garden performance. The Gold Medal award is reserved for plant breeding breakthroughs, and it’s awarded only once or twice a decade.

Ball Horticultural began making ‘Purple Majesty’ available to garden centres in the US during summer 2003 under a university licensing agreement and will receive royalties on sales.
Andrews normally breeds agricultural, not horticultural, plants. However, an unusually coloured plant got Andrews’ attention as he was evaluating potential breeding stock from India. The purplish plant was no help in developing grain-producing pearl millet varieties, but its unusual appearance earned it a spot in a genetics nursery for university students.

It remained in the teaching nursery since the mid-1980s, but researchers didn't realise its ornamental value and during a chance visit in 1996, the unusual purple millet caught eye of Harlan Hamernik, owner of Bluebird Nursery at Clarkson, Nebraska USA.

“He drove by the nursery field, saw this purple millet and suggested I enter it in the All-America Selections contest in 1998,” Andrews said. He heeded the advice from the highly regarded plantsman.

Andrews and Rajewski looked at several purple pearl millet selections and made the ‘Purple Majesty’ hybrid from the most desirable parents.
It likes a well-drained, sunny site as the plant is tropical in origin and likes warmth. Sunlight strengthens the purple color, which appears after a three-week juvenile phase.

Although it can tolerate drought and poor soils, ‘Purple Majesty’ responds strongly to early fertiliser applications and light watering.

First featured in Issue 33 of PLANTS magazine

University of Nebraska


Posted: 18 December 2004
Last modified: 23 April 2007


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