Beth Chatto, Christopher LLoyd, Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Black Beauty', Pennisetum alopecuroides viridescens, pennistum alopecuroides 'Red Head'
On the last Friday in January yet another storm tore through the valley leaving us with an extended power cut that made it hard to get on with much indoors. As a result I dipped into a well-indexed kindle edition of Dear Friend and Gardener a personal exchange of letters written over a two-year period between Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd that was first published in 1998. For an excellent review of the republished, newly illustrated edition of 2013 written by The Anxious Gardener, please click here.
The flower heads of the grass are almost black, dark, caterpillar like heads, with closely set, green seed cases enclosed in long, almost black hairs which protrude like cats’ whiskers, forming a filmy brush or tail more than 5cm (2″) across.
These are Beth Chatto’s observations of a late flowering grassy beauty, Pennisetum alopecuroides viridescens recorded in a letter to her ‘pen pal’ dated 22nd September 1997. Although the letters were written at the publisher’s behest, they contain a wealth of fascinating information, often about plants.
Since planting an equally visually stunning cousin Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Black Beauty’, shown above, in my own garden, I have also become smitten with these knee to thigh high grasses. In 2014, I added ‘Hameln’, ‘Dark Desire’ and ‘Red Head’ to my collection, so far they are doing well whether grown in the ground or in a large pot.
‘Red Head’, shown above, is one of the most distinctively coloured forms, typically, it fades as it ages, in this case to maroon. Others range from creamy buff to almost purplish black. I’ve yet to meet either the smallest of the cultivars, ‘Little Bunny’, or, the tallest of all Pennisetum alopecuroides, the straight species plant. This year, in mid autumn, I plan to collect and then sow seed while it’s still fresh, just for the fun of seeing how the seedlings vary. Seedaholic gives excellent advice while Marchant’s Hardy Plants’ garden notes advise marking seedlings as such, for instance, as Pennisietum alopecuroides ex ‘Black Beauty’.
The image above is of P.a. viridescens taken at Ouldolf Field last September where it is used to striking effect as repeated accents at the front and corners of borders. The garden is still quite young, perhaps the more characteristic flowing fountain shape is yet to develop. Had I dipped into Dear Friend and Gardener beforehand I’d have looked for the “silhouettes … repeated as shadows” falling on the grassy paths, as they do in autumn in the The Beth Chatto Gardens in Essex. Here it’s planted at the edges of a damp pondside border, mimicking conditions in which it often grows in the wild. In her garden, this pennisetum was also the key plant used to stabilise a reclaimed area of wasteland, combined with white rosebay willowherb and variegated ground elder which suggests a robust nature.
Visits to Ouldolf Field last autumn sent me scurrying home to scrutinise a close relative, Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Black Beauty’ planted in 2010 at the base of Prunus serrula. Last October saw an especially dazzling show of sharp orange/green leaf colour against the dusky flowers. Since the introduction of ‘Hameln’ many modern cultivars have been developed for improved hardiness and a freer flowering habit. In my garden I grow them in an open sunny spot in moist but well drained soil – builder’s rubble strewn infill augmented with sterile loam, for the first two years they were kept well watered along with the newly planted sapling.
By early June 2015, the mature clumps looked luxuriant, the uniform mid green colour complements the tree and, as they have a neat, compact habit, was a good choice for lining this narrow path. If well spaced, here at a metre apart on centre, clumps work well with Allium ‘Christophii’ and Geranium ‘Rozanne’. Pennisetum alopecuroides is a warm season grass, originating from Eastern Asia and Australia they may remain evergreen in warmer climates (and self seed). In more temperate gardens : they become dormant in winter, can be slow to get going in spring, and, in my garden, are the last to flower. That said, they’ve survived temperatures of -10 in the winters of 2010-12 plus prolonged spells of winter wet. Buying a good sized plant makes sense to me, they settle in more quickly. I have heard some sorry tales about smaller slips that establish poorly in open ground, if at all, which makes me think that growing young seedlings on under cover through winter would be a good idea.
By late winter, thoughts of how to raise my own plants from seed must be set aside, despite the fluffy appearance of the dried flowerheads the seed is spent. Beth Chatto’s touching phrase “soft brown like sandalwood now” (January of the same year) describes the finale of desaturated colour, shortly followed by a guide to their winter party tricks. She reminded me to brave the weather and early starts while there’s time to catch them in action.
Pennisetum alopecuroides is special in having three sets of bristles that excel at snatching hints of moisture from thin air causing the the flowers to plump up. Following either autumn dew or, in this case, overnight winter mist delivered last Sunday morning, the minuscule beads are suspended along the elongated bristles.
Close to … all I can ever manage is an ‘Oh me, oh my!’.
Hoar frost etched the second set of inner bristles and bleaching them into a mass of sparkling wands for two days solid in mid January leaving me spellbound.
All-grass borders are generally evidence of a shortage of original thought.
Although Christopher LLoyd, the maestro of Great Dixter Gardens‘ famous succession planting, didn’t reply specifically to Beth Chatto’s descriptions of her “good grass” he did make a few pithy comments about the uses of grasses in general. This one in particular raised a smile from me. I think we’ve benefitted from their combined wisdom and come a long way since then ….