Sunday, March 31, 2013

A grass with a reputation

Despite the name of this blog, I don't think I have ever written about pampas - big, bold grasses in the genus Cortaderia - and if I have, I'm sure you guys wouldn't be rude enough to remind me! As a teenager working in the summer holidays on the seaside gardens in Felixstowe, I remember the huge clumps of pampas that thrived there and defied the salt spray from the biting East winds.  I guess I've always liked them and so tended to include them in my landscape schemes, even though many would say they are terribly unfashionable. During my years working in both Reading and Nottingham University, I regularly planted them, to the extent that they could almost be regarded as my 'signature plant'. They were great in that environment, big enough to make a statement, tough enough to withstand student high spirits and looked at their best from autumn, the beginning of the academic year, through much of the winter.  I like pampas! So when I started this blog the idea of pampas as a very English garden plant, contrasted with palms, very significant in my Californian winter home, seemed just right.

Pampas in full autumn glory - possibly 'Sunningdale Silver'
Cortaderia look good with exotics such as these Canna 'Assaut'

Only recently did I discover that pampas had a hidden or maybe not so hidden meaning. Back in the 1960's, which is of course very much pre-internet days, when swinging had an upsurge, it is said that planting a pampas grass in your front garden was an indication to the like-minded that you were open to offers. I didn't know that.  I have to admit that I do have a pampas in my front garden, although it is a rather refined C. richardii and I'm not removing it. I'll plead the 5th!

Cortaderia richardii but not my front garden!

Cortaderia come mainly from South America with a few from New Zealand. They are evergreen grasses. Plants can be male, female or bisexual and this does sometimes affect their habit of growth. Inevitably it will be more apparent in batches grown from seed, rather than named cultivars. A mature specimen of Cortaderia selloana 'Sunningdale Silver' in full plumage at 3m (10ft) tall is a stunning sight. For gardens with limited space, there are compact cultivars, such as 'Pumila' which reaches a more acceptable 1.2m. The cultivar 'Caminea Rendatleri' or 'Pink Feather' is another tall one, but with pink tinted flowers.

Pampas in the heat of Palm Springs - equally successful - tall and short cultivars

The smokey pink of 'Rendatleri'

Some modern cultivars are grown for their foliage. 'Aureolineata', often sold as 'Gold Band' is mainly grown for its striped golden foliage and 'Albolineata', 'Silver Stripe' for its white variegated leaves. Both are good, reasonably compact foliage plants with some flower.

'Gold Band' as a highlight in the hot borders in the Millennium Garden

Close up of foliage of 'Gold Band'

'Silver Stripe' - sorry - couldn't find a better picture and my own plant is still under snow!

Pampas looks good well into the winter as the dramatic seedheads hang on for ages but eventually they become rain sodden, the stems snap and by late winter they are a mess and need tidying up. The ragged, saw-toothed leaves make this a slightly hazardous operation, no doubt leading to the rather drastic tradition of burning out the centre of pampas. This involved setting fire to the dry leaves and stems in the middle of the plant which does effectively clean out the dead material but can't do much good to the live surrounding tissues! Like many tough garden plants, it survives this process, although one cannot recommend it.

Not to be recommended!

Well I'm off for a walk as there's a glimmer of sunshine and besides I want to see who else grows pampas in their front gardens - just curious!


  1. Haha, a bygone era when one has to rely on plants to convey a certain meaning, now all one needs to do is trawl the net...

    We'd love to see pampas grass make a comeback, it is after all undeniably architectural in habit and form.

  2. Here in Palm Springs, where it is in the 80s and blissfully sunny, I thought I do some research to see who, locally, grows pampas in their yards. Purely research, of course.