Stipa ‘Sirocco’ for Winter Color

As temperatures fall below freezing, a delightful Stipa arundinacea ‘Sirocco’ keeps on performing beautifully on my winter front porch. Photo copyright Kevin O’Connor.

Stipa ‘Sirocco’ turns copper and pink during cold weather. Photo copyright Kevin O’Connor.

We interrupt all our planned holiday posts to report on the great performance of this ornamental grass called Stipa arundinacea ‘Sirocco’ on my front porch.

During cold weather, this plant’s arching foliage turns from green to shades of blush, copper and pink. And that’s what is happening with mine right now. I’ve seen different listings for this grass. Some experts report it’s hardy to Zone 4; others to Zone 6. I just know that mine are doing fine on the porch, even though this week’s temperatures dropped often to 20s F.

Stipa ‘Sirocco’ with Proven Winners Superbells®, ageratum and dichondra. Photo copyright Kevin O’Connor.

You may remember this ornamental grass from last summer, when it starred above with some of Proven Winners’ newest Superbells® (Calibrachoa hybrid). I’m crazy about the way the arching foliage falls softly over other container plants.

Stipa ‘Sirocco’ provides four-season beauty. Photo copyright Kevin O’Connor.

This four-season grass likes full sun conditions. Don’t overwater this plant; it grows best in well-drained, slightly dry potting soil. Stipa ‘Sirocco’ is the only pink ornamental grass you can grow from seed, although I bought my transplants at a local independent garden center. Start growing this beauty in winter, and you’ll see for yourself why I had to make such a fuss.

More on Stipa ‘Sirocco.’

New Zealand Wind Grass

Hailing from New Zealand, but admired the world over, this evergreen, ornamental grass is absolutely garden worthy. Ideal for adding structure, movement and colour to the garden. Adaptable to sun or shade, it forms soft, pendent tufts. The leaves change from green to tan, orange and red through the seasons and come summer a soft cloud of arching pink spikelets that turn purple/brown in autumn. The flowers can be left to add winter interest, or cut for indoor display.
New Zealand Wind Grass holds the prestigious RHS Award of Garden Merit, one of the highest accolades a plant can have. This versatile plant is well suited to cottage gardens, pots, as a ground cover, beneath trees, accent or backdrop plant. It is a good, manageable size and provides year round interest.
Plant in moderately fertile to humus rich, well drained soil. If it is too moist it tends to rot – so those hard to fill dry shade positions are not a problem! The plants are quick to establish and easy to care for, they will last around four years, they should then be replaced, the seed is viable and will self sow (certainly not to an invasive level) or can be collected for sowing in autumn.
Anemanthele lessoniana was previously known as Stipa arundinacea. Other common names include Pheasant’s Tail Grass.

How to Grow Anemanthele lessoniana Plants in your Garden

Gardener’s HQ Guide to Growing New Zealand Wind Grass, Pheasant’s Tail, and Gossamer Grass

Anemanthele lessoniana (Syn. Stipa arundinacea) is a commonly grown ornamental garden grass that is the only member of its genus, and a member of the ten thousand strong true grass family Poaceae.

It is native to New Zealand and is commonly referred to as New Zealand wind grass, or sometimes as ‘Bent’, ‘Pheasant’s tail’ or ‘Gossamer’ grass. Depending on the zone where it is grown, it is either semi-evergreen (zone 8) or evergreen (zone 9 or 10). It is fast growing and clump forming.

Its bushy nature and attractive colors make Anemanthele lessoniana an attractive focus plant that can be used in a large array of gardens such as cottage, gravel, city, hilly, informal, prairie, and courtyards. It is very versatile and can be used in flower beds and borders, as an edging plant, or even in large containers.

Anemanthele lessoniana Description

Anemanthele lessoniana is usually a semi-evergreen perennial grass that reaches a height of 90 cm (36 inches), it grows as a clump and typically has a spread of around 90 to 140 cm (36–55 inches). It typically takes two to three years to reach its full height. The leaves are arching, slender, and olive-green in color; these become copper-red, or orange-gold in color in the summer and autumn.


New Zealand Wind Grass (both pictures by Megan Hansen).

They remain this lovely color through the winter, making them a welcome sight in the garden during the winter. Plants carry bowing sprays of flowers of red and brown in the summer.


Photograph of Anemanthele lessoniana.

Anemanthele lessoniana Growing Guide

  • They will grow well in zones 8 to 10.
  • Grow Anemanthele lessoniana in full sunlight or partial shade.
  • Space plants about 50 cm (20 inches) apart or separately.
  • The soil should be well drained, have a light to medium constitution, and fairly fertile. It can grow on sandy, chalky, clays, and loams.
  • It can tolerate sheltered and exposed areas, and looks especially attractive when its leaves shiver in the wind.
  • Sow seeds lightly covered under a cold frame in the spring. Alternatively sow in slightly moist compost in a seed tray, and cover with vermiculite; next place in a clear plastic bag and germinate in the light at 20 to 25°C (70–77°F) for four to twelve weeks. When seedlings emerge transplant into pots and keep under a cold frame; transplant them to their final location once all chance of frost has passed.
  • Further plants can be propagated by division in the middle of spring and the start of summer.
  • Anemanthele lessoniana require little maintenance and is not usually susceptible to pests and diseases. Supply water during prolonged dry spells. Tidy up the plant by removing dead and winter damaged leaves by combing with your hands at the start of spring.

There was a time in the not too distant past, when life was simple and this gorgeous ornamental grass was simply known as Pheasant’s Tail Grass or, for those that had been to college, Stipa arundinacea.
Now, life is that bit more complicated and its new name is Anemanthele lessoniana, which is apparently pronounced ăn-e-man-thee-le less-o-nee-ana – and is so much harder to remember not to mention a bit of a mouthful!
Anemanthele lessoniana is a valuable evergreen perennial grass with narrow leathery dark green arching leaves. In colder months the leaves become bronzed and streaked turning orange-red in late summer and throughout the winter. The colour is especially valuable in winter when there may be less to catch your eye in the garden.
From midsummer to early autumn it produces open, airy panicles of purple-green flowers that that hang down, almost touching the ground. They give the plant a pleasing overall arching habit – every lightest breeze will tussle and ripple this graceful confection.
This perennial grass can be used as a specimen plant in small spaces or in group plantings along borders for colour contrast. It can be grown in containers in a courtyard or on a patio or given space in the garden. Once it matures it can grow to a height of 1 metre (3ft) tall by 120cm (4ft) wide. It can be divided to keep it within bounds or left to mature in a large garden where it will look truly magnificent.
This easy-care ornamental grass is hardy to minus 12°C (10°F) and copes with shade or blasting hot sun, drought and outright neglect. In fact, don’t overwater this plant; it grows best in well-drained, slightly dry potting soil
To quote the Plantsman E.A. Bowles – ‘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’.
Anemanthele lessoniana has been awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit

Sowing: Sow in November to March
Sow in a well-lit position, into a good, soil-based compost. Cover seeds thinly and keep moist at around 15°C (60°F). Some New Zealand species can be very slow indeed and may need cooler temperatures before they will come up. Grass seedlings should be potted on and grown on singly, or in clumps for more rapid establishment of a large specimen.

Cultivation:
Stipa Arundinacea is easily grown in average, medium to dry soils, in full sun or shade. It also does well in heavy clay soils, unlike many other ornamental grasses. Once established it has a low water requirement, responding to mulch and an occasional deep watering during dry periods, particularly for young plants.
This grass along with many plants originating from New Zealand is tough as nails. It is hardy to minus 12°C (10°F) but does not like to be waterlogged in winter. If it is sat in water through the winter it will die so make sure drainage is good as you plant the plants in the garden.
In spring, tease out dead foliage by gently running your fingers through it as if it were hair. If it needs a gentle hand it should be cut back to no lower than 15cm (6in).
The plants may self-seed, but simply pull out seedlings when you see them.

Division:
In a few years the plant may need to be divided. It is a fairly easy plant to dig out of the ground in contrast with many of the deeper rooting grasses. Older plants may be tough to divide as the plant has a thick woody interior. Use a coarse-toothed pruning saw to cut through this part. Split the plant into two or three equal parts and replant.

Plant Uses:
Architectural, Ground cover, Gravel garden. Naturalising.

Origin:
Anemanthele is a monotypic genus of grass indigenous to New Zealand. Its only species is Anemanthele lessoniana. This is a naturally rare declining grass in the wild but it is now widely cultivated for use as an ornamental garden plant. It is endemic to both the North and South Islands of New Zealand but mainly on the eastern side South to Otago.
It can be found growing on the cost and into the adjoining mountains. It also occurs in open forests or along forest margins and in scrubland or on bluffs. It grows in an open to exposed sunny to semi shaded positions tolerating frost, wind and drought.

Nomenclature:
The genus name Anemanthele means ‘windsept plume’. It derives from the Greek anemos meaning ‘wind’ and anthelion which is a flowerlet or inforescence.
The species name lessoniana is named for Pierre Adolphe Lesson (1805-1888), the French physician and botanist.
(Pierre Adolphe Lesson is sometimes confused with his elder brother René Primevère Lesson (1794-1849) who was a pharmacist and also a naturalist. René is most famous for being the first naturalist to see birds of paradise in the wild.)
Most commonly known as Pheasant’s Tail Grass, it is also known as Buffalo’s Gold, Pheasant Tails or Sirocco
In New Zealand it is commonly known as Gossamer grass, Rainbow Grass or Wind grass due to the seeds on slender stems that shimmer in the wind.
Synonyms: Oryzopsis rigida, Oryzopsis lessoniana

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.

Anemanthele lessoniana, growing in our gravel garden.

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.

Grass maze at Cambridge University Botanic Gardens

Earnest Augustus Bowles (1865-1954) was a leading horticulturist, botanical artist and garden writer of his day, accomplishments that were all the more remarkable as he wasn’t formally trained. ‘Gussie’, as he was known to his friends, introduced over forty cultivars of perennials many of which are familiar to us today. Two spring to my mind : the perennial wallflower Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve‘ and Carex elata ‘Aurea’ (Bowles’ Golden sedge). As a long serving, highly respected Vice President of the Royal Horticultural Society he won the Victoria Medal of Honour, and, for his contribution to horticulture in general he is commemorated in ‘Bowles Corner’, RHS Wisley Gardens. He’s also left us with a riddle ….

The tail feather in question

To try and solve it I’ve been reading his book My Garden in Summer, one of three seasonal journals published in 1914. Bowles and his friend William Robinson, were early pioneers of ornamental grasses and Bowles experimented with dozens of them in his Myddleton House garden. I’m intrigued to discover that among those he trialled was the New Zealand semi-evergreen Anemanthele lessoniana (syn.Stipa arundinacea), it’s a grass I know and love, not least because it grows so easily from seed. It’s commonly called Pheasant’s Tail grass, although Bowles was puzzled about its likeness, to him it looked no “more like a pheasant’s tail than a pig’s”.

July

Over the last few weeks this grass has been coming into flower, its good looks start a debate among visitors. Does it look more like the tufts on the pheasant’s tail feathers before the flowers are fully open. Or perhaps it just the tints in its foliage?

August

Between bouts of admiring it we get down to the brass tacks of growing it.

1st year seedling 2nd year seedling

Even if young plants don’t look as resplendent their parents, the sharply tinted orange-green foliage is an attractive feature. Grown in shade leaves are more uniformly olive green – less pheasanty, perhaps?

After several years of loyal service this group are due for retirement.

By winter they will look like this – thatch ridden but easy to dig up.

Once the airy panicles are fully open, the debate resumes with gusto. Does the bronze-violet sheen of the mass of inflorescences resemble ihe iridescent plumage of the male pheasant’s breast? The shimmering effect, and the debate, lasts for a good few weeks, once seed sets the gauze turns tawny and the wrangling stops. The arching flowering stems are about a metre long, they have a habit of lassoing passers-by. In late autumn I dead head it, especially if it’s planted next to a narrow path. The spent stems pull away in great armfuls as easily as candy floss.

In its prime, anemanthele is a behemoth, occupying a square metre of space. In this bed it’s completely engulfed the giant slices of Scots Pine.

It looked rather different in May.

In the centre of the above image, the anemanthele ‘hedge’ bordering the drive shows that the last two have failed to grow as well as their siblings, this is one of the joys of mass plantings.

Annexed by Persicaria affinis ‘Superba’ they’re half-way to the compost heap. I cut back them back by a third in spring, last year’s straw coloured growth at that height is still visible.

Spares in the nursery

To maintain a bold scheme I’ve discovered it’s a good idea to have heirs and spares on standby. In the interim, I think the trick is to know when to cut mature specimens back and by how far – something I wrote about in a previous post Easy Evergreen Grasses. There’s nothing quite like a bit of schadenfreude to ease the misery of gardening; imagine my delight when I stumbled upon Bowles’ description of his own experience of growing the very same plant but known to him by a different name, Apera arundinacea.

At one time I grew Apera arundinacea very well here, and its wonderfully long hanging heads and bronze autumn colouring delighted me both in the rock garden, where it hung over big stones, and especially in some fine old stone vases; but hard winters killed it, and I have never been able to get it to grow strongly again, I shall keep trying to do so, as 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.

My Garden in Summer (1914) Chapter XII ‘Grasses’ page 235, E.A.Bowles.

I imagine Bowles’ specimens looked gorgeous – anemanthele is stunning given either height to swoon or something to drape over. Those I grew interspersed with Geranium ‘Rozanne’ softened the edge of the wide terrace steps, it was a sight that made me smile. Inevitably, I lost them too, to old-age not bad winters.

In summer the solo display of the geranium under the Prunus serrula is enjoyable, however, it was the evergreen grass that carried this spot through the winter. With ‘Rozanne’ flexing her muscles, it’s unwise to reintroduce immature grasses : I tried, they got swamped. The serendipitous combination worked because both were planted at the same time.

A century has passed since Bowles lost his Apera arundinacea. Assisted by climate change and the observations of gardeners’ friends like ‘Gussie’ Bowles we’re able to grow plants like Anemanthele lessoniana with a much better chance of success. So much so, that it’s possible to experiment with new ways of using them. I’m enjoying Allison Reid’s Frogend Dweller blog and it was her post Phases of the Maze that piqued my interest in E.A. Bowles. It’s fascinating reading with inspiring images of the incredible Pheasant’s Tail grass maze in Cambridge Botanic Gardens.

Useful links :

E.A.Bowles Of Myddleton House Society, Enfield

RHS Rediscovering Bowles’ Corner

Bryan Hewitt The Crocus King : E.A. Bowlesof Myddleton House (Rockingam Press, 1997) with a forward by Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles OBE.

E.A.Bowles My Garden in Summer (reprinted 2012 by Forgotten Books)

There is an Internet Archive for the complete text of My Garden in Summer 1914.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *