In the last few years I’ve become increasingly interested in – and fond of – ornamental grasses, but I didn’t have much experience of growing them.
When Vanna and I designed the garden at the Belvedere Centre I decided I needed to know more, so I treated myself to the book Designing With Grasses by Neil Lucas of Knoll Gardens in Dorset. It was an excellent buy and it encouraged me to try several species of grasses, sedges and woodrushes in the garden, with great success.
One of the grasses I discovered at that time is now a firm favourite: Pheasant’s Tail Grass, Anemanthele lessoniana. It is also known by its previous scientific name, Stipa arundinacea. I grow it in my own garden (in the gravel garden near the house) and I have recommended it to others – my friend Jo now grows it in her front garden in Norwich and has become another fan. The RHS lists it in its Top 10 List of Autumn Grasses.
Amenanthele lessoniana is a perennial, evergreen grass. It has arching, graceful narrow and leathery dark green leaves, which become bronzed and streaked, turning a beautiful orange-red (or copper-red or orange-gold) by the start of winter. Small, airy panicles of purple-green flowers appear in mid to late summer and hang almost to the ground. These become red-brown and the seeds that follow can attract seed-eating birds such as finches. The slightest breeze makes the plant move, adding extra interest to the garden. The plant forms clumps that eventually grow to about 120cm (four feet) wide; height is about a metre (three feet).
I’ve found Amenanthele lessoniana to be very adaptable, at least here in Norwich. At the Belvedere Centre the plant thrives in quite heavy clay in semi-shade and was happy enough to start self-seeding by its second year. In our own garden it grows in a fairly sunny spot in well-drained, sandy soil (through a mulch of landscape fabric covered in gravel) and in Jo’s garden it is in full sun in heavy soil. The RHS website says the plant can be grown in a south-, east- or west-facing site, whether sheltered or exposed and on sand, clay, chalk or loam soils. But waterlogged soils should be avoided and in colder areas, the plant may need to be protected and/or grown in well-drained soil. (The plant is hardy to -12 Celsius but it is a combination of cold and damp that often kills plants in winter.) In spring, I tease out any dead foliage by gently running my fingers through the grass. I don’t cut it back, though you can prune as low as about 15cm (six inches) from the ground. Don’t cut any lower, as this may kill it.
Amenanthele lessoniana comes from New Zealand, where it is found mainly on the eastern side of North and South Islands and is rare and declining. The name Pheasant’s Tail Grass comes from the resemblance between its autumn colours and those of pheasants’ tail feathers. (Not everyone is convinced of the resemblance, even if they like the grass. E.A. Bowles said: “The Pheasant’s Tail Grass as it is called – goodness knows why, as it is no more like a pheasant’s tail than a pig’s – is one of the most beautiful of all light grasses”.) Other names for Amenanthele include New Zealand Wind Grass or Gossamer Grass. The genus Anemanthele is monotypic – there is just the one species. Anemanthele means “windswept plume” and lessoniana is named after the French physician and botanist Pierre Adolphe Lesson (1805-1888).
Older plants can be divided from mid spring to early summer and tougher clumps can be sawn apart if necessary. Division will reinvigorate the plant. Self-sown plants can be dug up and moved and seeds collected from the plant can be sown in late winter indoors in a reasonably warm spot. I am grateful to the Seedaholic website for much of the information in this article; it gives much more detail on propagation and care. The Knoll Gardens website gives information on caring for this and other ornamental grasses.
Anemanthele looks good on a small or large scale. I have three plants, but why stop there? At the end of September we visited Cambridge University Botanic Gardens, where there is a whole maze of it. It looks great, though you need the space to do it. Today the garden is shut due to high winds as the remains of Hurricane Gonzalo sweep through Britain, but I bet the grass looks great as it sways in the wind.