It was the light, the way it shone through the seed heads, like they were made of delicate gossamer threads, they came alive and danced, like fireflies across my mind, and at every turn they were there. As part studying for the Diploma of Horticulture at Wisley we have to submit a collection of 10 dried plant specimens, pressed and presented in traditional standard herbarium format. This weekend I began collecting and pressing samples for my chosen topic: grasses. I imagine they will make as beautiful pressed specimens as they do alive and sunlit. Pictured below is the short-lived perennial (often treated as an annual) Hordeum jubatum, or foxtail barley. It can be found on the borders surrounding the Glasshouse Lake at Wisley, an excellent choice for this site, where once established it is happy on dry soils and in full sun.
As far as I can remember grasses have been used in ornamental horticulture forever, but many refer to them as being a relatively new ‘fad’. Strictly this isn’t true for grasses were used as an ornamental element in gardens in the Victorian era, albeit with a more tropical illusion in mind - think pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana, the feathery cultivar ‘Pumila’ pictured below). Being from New Zealand originally, I cannot help but think of this as being a clumsy thuggish cousin of the more graceful C. richardii (locally known as toetoe) both can be compared at your own discretion on the grass border at Wisley. Bizarrely the brute (pampas) was introduced as an ornamental to New Zealand, where after escaping from gardens into the wild, it promiscuously hybridizes and seeds about - you can guess the rest of the story.
Cortaderia selloana ‘Pumila’
Anyway I digress, somewhere after Victorian favour grasses fell by the wayside and any subsequent recorded reference to grass became synonymous with the smooth green patch also endearingly referred to as the lawn. The rediscovery, reinvention, revolution in use of grasses as ornamental elements in the landscape is often attributed to nurserymen Kurt Bluemel and Wolfgang Oehme who formed a partnership in the mid 60s. They were inspired by the natural world and another early pioneer in grass breeding Karl Foerster (1874-1970). Many cultivars of grasses are named after him including Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ (pictured below) which he introduced in 1950 after discovering it in Hamburg Botanic Gardens. It is thought to be a sterile hybrid of C. epigejos and C. arundinacea parentage.
Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’
Even in the absence of inflorescence, the strapping foliage of grass can grace a border with contrasting shape, form, movement, attitude and poise. At Wisley we have many a fine example of the efficacy of interplanting grasses into the herbaceous border and they always shine out at this time of year, maturing while other perennials fade. Pictured below is the 2011 autumn scene (from the Glasshouse Borders looking towards the Wild Garden) where blond bleached Miscanthus seed heads complement and contrast the ambers, browns and oranges of the surrounding landscape. Later, as the bronze of autumn fades into slinky winter silhouettes (later much later), the stronger stemmed grasses (e.g. Miscanthus) stand up to the frosts wearing them like sparkling sequined coats. Truly grass can be a plant for all seasons and as Mr Karl Foerster himself said “How terrible a garden without grasses”!
View across the Glasshouse Landscape looking towards the Wild Garden.
See the RHS website on ornamental grasses for more information: