Some grasses grown from seed

by Virginia Oakes

In April 2006 we had our first ever Seedling Swap. It was a great success and much enjoyed by everyone who attended. Three members gave presentations on different aspects of growing from seed and this is a transcript of one of them.

Esparto grass on a hillside in southern Spain
My presentation is called ‘Some grasses grown from seed’. I don’t want to explain how to grow grasses from seed but rather describe a few of my favourites, most of them with a tale to tell.   I will start in Spain with Stipa tenacissima, Esparto Grass. This is not a very exciting grass but I would like to grow it because I think it would do well in my dry soil and because it would remind me of Spain. But, I’ve never been able to find any seed. It must have seed because the plant covers large tracts of land all over the hillsides but, so far, it has eluded me. Or, perhaps I don’t know what to look for. So, I have resorted to buying some seed in the hope that the people collecting it knew what they were up to. And they did. It has germinated, been pricked out and is growing well – so far!
I have a similar problem with my next grass, Pennisetum villosum. What exactly am I looking for? Some sort of grain is what I’m expecting but I pull the heads apart in vain. It is reputed to be a bit tender so perhaps it doesn’t have the right conditions to set seed. But I’m sure I’ve seen seedlings around my plant so it must do. I was discussing this with a fellow member who said that she didn’t worry with such niceties – she just sprinkles the whole thing over the pot and that’s that. So I tried that too and, would you believe it, fantastic germination and the plants are growing well. But wherever you get it from you can still enjoy this beautiful grass. My first two grasses have both had problems and my next is no better. Cortaderia fulvida is a pampus grass, but not the usual South American one. This elegant beauty comes from New Zealand. I have a love/hate relationship with it – I love it and it hates me. I despair of ever growing it successfully. I first saw it when Jack Elliott showed it during a lecture. Any plant that Jack commented on was bound to be good and this one really attracted my attention. It was some years later when I saw it listed in the RHS seed distribution. I managed to grow a number of plants and, knowing that it had been recommended by Jack, I thought that some other members might like it. One of the plants ended up in the garden of a friend but, due to my own procrastination and stupidity, the ones I kept perished still in the pots. Hers, planted in the front garden, grew and flowered for all to see as they drove past. I took to taking a detour so that I wasn’t reminded of my own tardiness. I tried again with fresh seed but this time, in my haste, planted it out when it was too young and at the wrong time of year – it too perished. Not to be beaten I ordered the seed again. I have a plant, put out at the right time and size, as far as I know, but I have to admit that it is not doing well. It is the most beautiful grass and one of these days I might have one of my own but meanwhile I’ll drive past Vera’s and enjoy hers.
Pennisetum villosum
Melinis repens
Having got the problems over at the beginning I will now tell you about some successes. I grew Stipa splendens from RHS seed. It doesn’t quite match the description in books but is a very attractive grass. If the weather is very wet when it’s in full flower in July the heads can bow quite badly but by mid-September it will have regained a more upright habit again and will then last in beauty through the winter. I’m returning to Spain for my next candidate. I found this grass, not up in the hills but on a dusty verge by a main road. I gathered a few seeds and grew a plant the following year. A knowledgeable HPS member identified it as Rhynchelytrum repens but I understand it’s had a name change to Melinis repens. The original name is such a mouthful that many people just called it Ginny’s pink grass. It is native to tropical Africa so what it was doing in southern Spain I do not know – perhaps it fell off the back of a lorry! I had never seen it before and haven’t seen it since and now that a roundabout has been built just where I found it, I doubt I ever will. However, I continue to enjoy it in my garden, growing it from my own collected seed each year. I haven’t ever planted it out but I use it to give a variation of texture in my pot garden. My next grass, Calamagrostis brachytricha, I first saw when we had a coach trip to Beth Chatto’s. We didn’t see it in the garden but in the nursery it caught quite a few peoples’ eye and several were stowed away in the hold. I planted just one small plant but it has seeded about and now I have several large clumps. Any unwanted seedlings are easily removed.
Calamagrostis brachytricha
Stipa gigantea
Finally, I come to my favourite. Not just my favourite grass but my favourite plant – Stipa gigantea. In my opinion it has everything. In the winter it’s a mound of green foliage – even during this last very cold winter it didn’t seem to come to any harm. By mid May it’s starting to send up flower stems. By the end of May the flowers are starting to develop and by June it’s in its full glory. In a close-up of a single flower you can see the anthers which have shed their pollen by spiralling open. The seeds develop and fall to the ground but the remains of the flower heads continue to be beautiful until the winter gales batter them down and you are left once more with the winter foliage.
Stipa gigantea – inflorescense
Stipa gigantea – a single flower
These are just a few of the many grasses that can be grown from seed and I hope this has inspired you to try a few more next year. And, any spare seedlings can be brought along to the Seedling Swap!